‘It’s OK to not be OK’: Panelists offer advice for coping with pandemic pressures

Issues That Matter panelists: top row, from left: Sophia Sexton (ASL Interpreter), Crystal Blankinship (Providence Medical Services), Anji Jorstad (Snohomish County Behavioral Health Services) and bottom row, from left: Betsy Griffith (Island County Human Services), Miki Gaspar (ASL Interpreter)

While there is no roadmap for maintaining emotional well-being during a pandemic, behavioral health experts speaking during a recent Sno-Isle Libraries webinar provided a wealth of advice and resources for coping with COVID-19 pressures.

During the Jan. 14 webinar, the first of three in the library system’s “Issues That Matter, Pandemic Pressures” series, speakers offered ways to identify warning signs that you or your loved ones are having trouble dealing with the many consequences of the pandemic.

“There are so many scenarios that families are experiencing at this time – access to health insurance, food, illness and teens who are missing out on milestone events,” explained panelist Anji Jorstad, who works with the homeless and incarcerated populations as a mental health supervisor for Snohomish County Behavioral Health Services. “Resiliency can be learned and fostered to help us move through times like these. Everyone has a story of how they are coping with the pandemic and it is important to know that there is no manual about how to react to something like it.”

In some cases, Jorstad said, the pandemic and its impacts have compounded stresses that were already happening for families, adding that children and youth respond very differently to trauma than adults. “It is common for kids to regress in times like these such as a 3-year-old wanting to breastfeed again,” she said.

Panelist Betsy Griffith, behavioral health lead for Island County Human Services, said a good indicator that people are struggling “is the increase of alcohol and marijuana sales. How do we support our community and people who are really struggling?” One way, Griffith said, is participating in the Smiling Mind online program, a nonprofit website that helps to bring mindfulness into focus, “it’s good and it’s free.”

Griffith pointed out that self-care is important and goes beyond the occasional bubble bath. “Self-care is having a menu of options to help you that includes professionals like counselors and therapists as well as supports groups,” Griffith said, “and now because of COVID-19 resources for professional help through the internet and an abundance of crisis lines are making it easier for everyone to get self-care.”

Panelist Crystal Blankinship, manager of behavioral health at Providence Medical Group, said that the pandemic has caused an increase in anxiety. “When we look at what is happening, and it’s happening to everybody in every country because it’s a real threat — it’s not in our heads, it’s real,” she said. “It’s helpful to understand that you’re having a normal human response.”

Blankinship then explained the perspectives of flight or fight and faint or freeze. In either case, she said, “you may feel overwhelmed or are having a hard time concentrating and feeling like you just can’t seem to settle down.” In the flight or fight instance, Blankinship said, you can do some self-talk and ask yourself, “Am I actually in danger?” In that scenario, “give yourself grace” and work on breathing exercises to help get yourself into a calm state, she advised. “After about 20 minutes you may feel better.”

“With faint or freeze,” she said, “you may just shut down, have a hard time feeling connected to others and your heart rate may even lower. So again, ask the question, ‘Am I in danger?’ If not, how do I get myself going? We have to do the opposite of breathing — in that hyper state we have to make ourselves get up and take a shower or stomp our feet and get moving.”

Blankinship said that “it can feel isolating when anxiety and depression are new to you but realize that you are having a normal human response and you are doing your best to manage.”

Griffith shared an unconventional technique to get youngsters to do calming breathing techniques: blowing bubbles. “When you get ready to blow a bubble you take a big breath in and then you have to blow out softly to get the bubble.”

A good place to start if you’re feeling overwhelmed, Griffith said, is a crisis line. “Crisis lines have a stigma but there are a range of crisis lines that are amazing,” she said. “You can text, call in or use a computer. Also, if you have a good relationship with your health provider, they may have connections and resources that can help you.”

Jorstad added that crisis lines are not just for people in crisis. “If you know someone who is in crisis you can call in for ideas on how you can support or help them.”

So, what can you do to make things better during the pandemic?

“Establish a predictable routine,” Jorstad said. “Your eating time, your bedtime, work hours – talking about different things as a family and helping each other to connect can help too.”

The panelists also shared what they have noticed in terms of silver linings to the pandemic.

Griffith pointed out that employers may allow workers to work from home more often and that “we have extra time with our kids, maybe that didn’t happen before.”

“It’s OK to not be OK, and it’s OK to tell someone that you are not OK.” Jorstad explained. “The pandemic has made it more OK than ever to not be OK.”

Another silver living, Blankinship said: “We are being more flexible as we deal with this chronic issue. We’ve been able to respond with things like this Issues that Matter webinar. The negative has forced some positives and highlights how resilient we are as human beings.”

If you missed the webinar it will be uploaded to the Sno-Isle YouTube channel at youtube.com/channel/UCdZDwgcm3doMo183BPWJLbq

The next Issues That Matter webinar, “Coping with Grief,” will be Jan. 30.

— By Misha Carter



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