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Coping with isolation, stress

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Fever, coughing and fatigue aren't the only adverse symptoms of the new coronavirus pandemic.

As jobs are lost, people are isolated and kids are stuck at home from school, we become susceptible to increased levels in hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, increased muscle tension and faster or more shallow breathing — all physiological symptoms of being in a state of crisis or stress.

When Berkshire Pathways, a clubhouse program of Viability Inc., which supports people with mental health diagnoses, had to shutter its door to help prevent COVID-19 spread, program Director David Brien said his staff was prepared to function under a "new normal," but some members were thrown for a loop.

"They crave the social support they get in coming here," he said. "A lot of them broke down in tears because they were not going to have that physical place of support that they've come to for years. One member still comes by a couple of times a day just to wave hello through the window."

Now, Berkshire Pathways staff are working to fill the gaps by delivering daily lunches, taking phone calls from and checking in on members remotely.

Even people who don't have an existing mental health disorder are prone to feeling vulnerable and could struggle to cope with all the disruption to their daily routine and lifestyle.

"We're all being asked to rapidly adapt to something totally new. For some people, this will give them a sense of a loss of control. It's harder for some than it is on others," said Jane Tillman, a board certified clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst for Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge.

Becca Phelps-Smith is a licensed clinical social worker and the director of emergency and acute care services for The Brien Center. She oversees the center's Emergency Services Program and Crisis Team, and says her staff has been experiencing an uptick in the volume of calls, including new callers, to the crisis line.

"It's been hard because we don't have all the answers ... and we don't have a lot of good information about what happens next," Phelps-Smith said.

"Our own brains get out of control when we start to think what might happen," said Melody Fisher, a Berkshire Community College associate professor of psychology and former community health clinician.

Fear and unconscious stress stimuli could cause us to lash out, curse more, eat more junk food or lose sleep. Unless we find an intervention, the effects of chronic stress could lead to longer term health problems like lasting anxiety, depression, addiction, obesity, clogged arteries and could even damage the cells of the immune system.

During this time of prolonged crisis, local mental and behavioral health experts say they fear a subsequent uptick in domestic violence, including child abuse, as well as an increase in the number of people experiencing thoughts of suicide.

"We need to slow that process down and learn how, during times of tension, to get some space," Tillman said.

"Just using the word 'pause,' is a good place to start," Fisher said, noting how emotions can manifest in and overwhelm the body.

"Just breathing in through the nose — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — and slowly out through the mouth tells your brain I'm safe enough to breathe slowly. It really does engage the parasympathetic response," she said, referring to the part of the nervous system that slows the heart rate and relaxes the gut.

Building structure and daily routine, even if it's just eating or taking a break at the same time of day can be helpful, Fisher said.

"Art and spirituality can be in a place of uncertainty and fear. That's what they're there for, as a way of feeling connected and comforted," she said.

The experts all agree that limiting news consumption, developing a nutritious diet, maintaining regular sleep and exercise habits, and staying connected with loved ones through technology can all help improve mental and physical health and reduce the risk of harming oneself or others. But developing these habits also requires discipline.

For some people, this means not overindulging in food and drink or not over-committing to helping others. For some it will mean learning to walk away when angry, or learning to listen versus arguing, or learning to set boundaries and time limits.

"We hear a lot about self-care, right? But self-care is not always about bubble baths and chocolate. Sometimes it's about doing something hard, right now," Fisher said. "Relative ease in the world isn't a given."

But choosing wisely how to use our time and energy can help create better outcomes.

"Structure really helps people across the board," Phelps-Smith said.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.

Support resources available 24/7

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In an emergency, call 911.

Berkshire Crisis Team: 413-499-0412

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

Samaritans Statewide: 617-247-0220

Text a crisis counselor: 741-741

Trevor Help Line for LGBTQ support: 1-866-488-7386

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 and press "1," or text 838-255

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA's) Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 or text "TalkWithUs" to 66746. (TTY 1-800-846-8517)

Elizabeth Freeman Center: 866-401-2425

Additional regional support NAMI Berkshire County: For support, call 413-443-1666 or email namibc@namibc.org, or visit https://namibc.org/resources for an expanded directory of resources and services.

Berkshire Pathways: 413-464-7949

Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention: https://berkshirecoalition.org

Berkshire District Attorney's Office is also posting a number of resources, from health to legal service informatoin, via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BerkshireDA/

In their words ...

Here's what some Berkshire County residents said in response to a Facebook post about what people are doing to cope during this crisis:

"I'm taking advantage of online prayer and meditation services from the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge."

— Jim Massery

"Journaling, writing, deep cleaning, meditating, stretching, taking walks outside. Solo yoga, long baths, cooking, lots of cooking."

— Isabella DeLuca

"I've been working on perfecting a cold foam to put on my cold brew coffee. It is a silly thing to do, but I look forward to getting up and making my morning coffee. It's a nice treat and a nice way to start my day."

— Veronica Bosley

"While working remotely and in between virtual meetings, I'm getting a lot of reading done and will probably cruise by my goal of reading 50 books this year!"

— Kelan O'Brien

"Dance parties on Zoom with our grandchildren who live in New York and California but we are now connected for movement therapy every day for 45 minutes taking turns picking out songs ( which "Alexa" plays for us)...we can't stop laughing."

— Christine Singer


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