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How to stay sane during the coronavirus pandemic

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Grief. Depression. Fear. Anger.

The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically impacted and changed all of our lives forever. During this, the worst time that many of us have ever lived through, how can we make sense of it all?

Detroit mental health professionals have some advice for us.

"I know several people, myself included, who are doing this alone," says Caleb S. Boswell, a limited licensed professional counselor and student advisor in the Office of Counseling and Career Planning at Washtenaw Community College. "The weather is gloomy, and that can heighten things like anxiety and depression. It's important that we try to stay connected to our circle through phone, email, and FaceTime. We may be physically isolated, but it is important not to become mentally isolated."

Boswell's passion for mental health has led him to do social media presentations about the benefits of therapy, using the hashtag #TherapyIsNormal. He's also the facilitator for the college's Brother 2 Brother program, which helps support underrepresented men on the campus. As COVID-19 ravages low-income, minority populations (see this week's cover story), he offers special advice for Black men.

"Sometimes we often don't feel that we have the space to be vulnerable and open, oftentimes turning to sex, alcohol, drugs, and other negative coping mechanisms," he says. "However, these times are unique, and I would honestly say that there is an opportunity here to find at least one person that you can simply talk to and be open with."

Journaling is also a common recommendation among therapists. If you can't find someone that you feel comfortable talking to, writing down feelings is a way of getting those emotions out.

Physical activity has long been linked to a healthier mental state — which can be hard to accomplish now, since we're supposed to be staying home to prevent the spread of the virus. But Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order calling for Michiganders to stay home allows for people to go outside for exercise — just be sure to stay six feet away from other people. Therapists recommend 30 minutes of activity every day: walking, dancing, going up and down the stairs. According to Psychology Today, exercise is well-known to stimulate the body to produce endorphins and enkephalins, the body's natural feel-good hormones that can make problems seem more manageable.

Spiritual practice can also be useful. While churches are exempt from Whitmer's executive order banning large gatherings (which have drawn criticism by some for being dangerous and, perhaps, unconstitutional), some might not want to go to church during the pandemic. "Watching YouTube videos of faith leaders can also be helpful," says Rev. Dawn Clark of DCC Counseling and Consulting, LLC, an associate minister at New Liberty Baptist Church in Detroit. But faith, or lack thereof, is a very personal thing. "Do the things that bring you comfort, and a little bit of joy," she says.

The financial toll of COVID-19 is obvious. Last week, more than 6 million people filed for unemployment, doubling the record high of 3 million the week before. "Finances can be mentally challenging, even without something like this," says Clark. "Reach out to your bank and creditors and let them know your current financial situation."

Clark says that it's important in these times, when our normal routines have been upended, to try to stick to a schedule that's close to what it used to be.

"Waking up around the same time as before can be helpful, setting small goals to achieve throughout the day," she explains. "We may have a lot more free time now. Setting a goal of just cleaning a cabinet or closet or working on a business plan can help the time pass and fill us with a sense of achievement."

While it's smart to set small goals, it's also OK to rest and not feel the need to do much at all. Moderation in all things remains important — and that includes substances like alcohol. Whitmer's executive order banning all but "essential" businesses allows liquor stores to remain open, and the temptation to cope with alcohol can be strong for many.

"During this pandemic, so many of us are feeling anxious, afraid, depressed or isolated," says Stephanie M. Huhn, an admissions manager at Rainbow Rehabilitation Centers in metro Detroit. "For those in recovery and those struggling with addiction, maintaining sobriety during this time can be a huge challenge, as they have often turned to substances (or addictive behaviors) in the past to escape from these feelings of unease." Huhn says that the normal ways of comforting ourselves have been lost during this crisis.

"We are all experiencing a massive change in our day-to-day routines and our sense of normal has been shattered in many ways," she says. "This can be very disorienting and cause feelings of fear, panic, loss, and depression. Some people are feeling overwhelmed with new responsibilities, such as working from home and home schooling their young children, while others have lost many things that are important to them, such as their jobs, their routines, their sense of purpose, and their sense of self."

Huhn explains that, more than anything, it's important to remain hopeful. There are many available options for support, connection, and overall health and well-being.

Stay connected, reach out, and ask for help when you need it. Though we have to be isolated to stop the virus from spreading, that doesn't mean we have to be isolated from each other emotionally. If you're starting to feel depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, reach out for help.

For those facing struggles with addiction or maintaining sobriety, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a free, confidential hotline you can call 24/7 for referrals, support, and resources: 1-800-662-HELP.

Common Ground Resource and Crisis Center is another resource where people can call in, text, or chat online with a therapist: 800-231-1127; commongroundhelps.org

The Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority is also a free resource for referrals to a mental health professional: 707 W. Milwaukee St., Detroit; 313-833-2500; dwihn.org.

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