Among the COVID-weary, coping strategies elusive for 'new and different' stressors

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PITTSFIELD — At the grocery store, Rich Murphy can't help but glance around at people near him examining produce or waiting at the checkout counter.

Out walking his dog, he gets an uneasy feeling when people without face masks pass by him on the sidewalk.

Do they have it?

The pandemic unknowns scare Murphy the most. He says he can't help but wonder if strangers around him have been taking proper safety precautions, too.

"You don't know if they're social distancing," Murphy said. "You don't know if they've come into contact with anyone who has it."

Pandemic-era symptoms usually mean coughs, fever or trouble breathing. But, some conditions can be painful, even without a positive test result for the virus.

Some Berkshire residents say they are feeling a new sort of strain on their mental health and peace of mind, given all the added stress and anxiety of living in a pandemic. Experts acknowledge the new burden — and are stepping up offers of help.

'Extreme' times

Murphy, of Pittsfield, has a heart condition that compromises his immune system. When the pandemic picked up, he couldn't work and was homeless for a time.

He also has anxiety and depression disorders. Those challenges, he said, have been "brought to the extreme" by the coronavirus pandemic. He said his anxiety about catching COVID-19 can be so unbearable that the act of putting on a face mask can trigger a panic attack, though he wears one anyway. Social distancing, too, has been hard. He has restricted himself to doing only "the most basic, basic things."

"There's no harm in being overly cautious, but you miss people," he said. "My friends don't want to put my health in jeopardy."

Hayley Broderick, of Pittsfield, echoed those sentiments. She said social distancing has "made me much more of a hermit."

The lack of an in-person support system and social outlet has changed the way she handles stress.

"Before the pandemic, whenever something happened that was hard to deal with, I could just get out of the house for a while," Broderick said.

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Now, any outing requires her to plan ahead, and consider her needs and safety, before heading out the door. Even a trip to the bank or grocery store is more complicated than it used to be, she said.

Ways to cope

Help is out there. Mental health professionals and organizations are at the ready with resource referrals and tips.

Annabelle Coote, director of Movement Matters in Great Barrington, describes anxiety as a loud person in colorful clothes jumping around, distracting from what's good and working well in life, but she wants to remind everyone that anxiety is "a basic and universal experience."

Coote said the pandemic puts pressure on mental health because it disrupts routines and support systems, while posing new challenges.

"Our sense of routine and predictability tells our brains and bodies that things are normal," Coote said. "When there's a disruption, it feels like a red or yellow flag that says things are not OK."

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That phenomenon has had a ripple effect, Coote said, because knowledge of the coronavirus changes every day, and people are finding themselves in situations they aren't used to, like working or attending school from home.

"The stressors are new and different," she said. "We don't have existing coping strategies for them. We have to learn new things different from what's in our existing toolbox."

Coote said an important part of managing stress and anxiety is understanding that our brains have three parts. We have a thinking, or "human," brain, where conscious thought happens; an emotional, or "mammalian," brain, which is the center of our emotional experience; and an instinctive, or "reptilian," brain, which controls automatic bodily functions.

In our thinking brain, anxiety can overwhelm us with fears about the future. Coote said it is helpful to recognize those thoughts and ask ourselves, "Am I OK in this moment?" This awareness and "curiosity" about our mindset can shift thinking away from pressure and tension about the future and into a useful tool for the present.

"Our thoughts are real, but they're not necessarily true," she said.

Coote said self-compassion and kindness can help address how anxiety affects the emotional brain. She suggests treating yourself "the way you would treat a really good friend" and being mindful of what you need.

For the instinctive brain, Coote recommends getting in touch with your body. For some, meditation and mindfulness can be helpful. Breathing exercises or exercises focused on getting in touch with the five senses can help "get a sense of where we are in time and space."

For others, the best approach is getting up and moving, because with anxiety, our bodies want to "take action." Specifically, she recommends motions where one side of the body crosses to the other, such as walking, twisting or touching a hand to the opposite shoulder.

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Basic self-care — like getting a good night's sleep, getting fresh air and eating properly — also promotes mental health, Coote said.

State program

Not everyone has access to a long-term therapist or counselor, but help still is an option, regardless of one's financial situation or needs.

The state Department of Mental Health and the Riverside Trauma Center, based in Needham, launched MassSupport, a free and confidential resource referral and short-term counseling service, in response to the increased need for mental health services during the pandemic.

Other services like it exist, too.

Sarah Gaer, the Western Massachusetts team leader at the Riverside Trauma Center, said MassSupport exists to provide people with resources to relieve stress while teaching them strategies to better cope with it. Among the services MassSupport offers are psychological first aid, skills for psychological recovery and post-traumatic stress management.

"People are incredibly resilient," Gaer said. "We're here to help them tap into the strength they already have."

When Murphy found himself facing so many obstacles in the midst of a global pandemic, he turned to the internet in hopes of finding help — and he did. He joined support groups on Facebook, and he applied for grants and loans he found through groups including the Berkshire Housing Authority, Berkshire United Way and Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.

He credits all those people and the loyalty of his emotional support dog, Emma, for helping him find an apartment in Pittsfield where he has lived for the past few months.

"I'm not one to reach out to other people for help, but during this time, luckily enough, there are people who came together to help each other get through," Murphy said.

The expiration of enhanced unemployment benefits and concerns about contracting the virus still worry him. But, he hasn't given up hope.

"I am trying to stay strong in the face of this," Murphy said.

Caroline White can be reached at cwhite@berkshireeagle.com or at 563-513-1065.


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