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COVID-19 care: Stress, anxiety and PTSD — expect it all

Willie Brigman spots Mike Smiley while he bench presses on the Smith machine at the YMCA in Cortland. Both Brigman and Smiley said the gym has helped them with the stress and anxiety they’ve been feeling during the coronavirus pandemic. (Provided photo — S.N. Briere, Cortland Standard)

CORTLAND — Mike Smiley laid under the bar of the Smith machine Tuesday at the Cortland YMCA and placed his hands on the bar. Willie Brigman stood behind him keeping his hands slightly under the bar, spotting Smiley.

The two men are gym buddies, working out together when they can. For both, the gym has been an escape from the stress of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s definitely a good stress reliever,” Brigman said, noting it helps him focus on what’s going on in his life.

People have experienced mental health issues throughout the pandemic: depression, anxiety, stress.More than twice have sought help for coronavirus-related emotional and mental problems as before the pandemic, according to health-care consortium Kaiser Permanente.

The next question is whether what is happening now will lead to COVID post-traumatic stress disorder and what people can do now to improve their mental health.

Mental health during COVID The pandemic, and its aftermath, present a host of unanswered questions.

“We don’t know where we’re going,” Alan Stillman, a counselor with Family and Children Counseling Services.

That causes anxiety. Stillman said it’s one of the biggest mental health concerns being seen during the pandemic. He listed worrisome questions people raise from being anxious.

“Is there going to be a fair and equitable distribution of the vaccine?” Stillman asked. “Will people get the vaccine?”

People aren’t able to control much of what is happening in the world right now, especially related to COVID, he said, and that causes the anxiety.

“It can be really hard,” he said. “Everyone keeps talking about the new normal, but we don’t know what that will be like.”

Stillman also said people feel overwhelmingly stressed during COVID for a number of other reasons: the political climate, the virus itself, the economy and much more.

“The impact of COVID-19 to our mental health has been devastating,” said Glenn Liebman, the CEO of the Mental Health Association of New York. “A Kaiser Permante study estimated that almost 50% of Americans have a mental health-related issue, up from 20% pre-COVID.”

Liebman said there has also been a large increase in depression and substance use.

“Isolation plays a major role in that as does the economic impact,” he said. “The economic crisis is also a mental health crisis.”

The next question is whether the coronavirus and effects of the coronavirus will cause people to experience post-traumatic stress once the pandemic is over.

“We still don’t yet know the impact of long-term trauma as well,” Liebman said.

Liebman said the association has lobbied to shepherd a bill through the state legislature that would establish a trauma-informed state advisory task force “that would bring together statewide experts to review best practices in New York and across the country.”

Liebman said the bill is awaiting the governor’s signature or veto.

PTSD

But the issues are real, today, and PTSD is a possibility — some people have spent the past nine months under the threat of a virus that has already killed more than 250,000 Americans.

“It’s a little different for everybody,” said Norm Stitzel, the founder of Veterans Search and Rescue, who has been coping with both his own PTSD, but helping other veterans with theirs.

But there are some commonalities between what veterans and other people can experience.

“When they’re isolated and they got time on their hands, things start to come up,” Stitzel said, noting people can start to recall the traumatic event.

Human contact can help people cope, but that increases the risk of transmission. Staying away from people — at least 6 feet from people — can deter the spread of the virus, but it increases isolation.

It’s a catch-22, Stitzel said.

“We don’t know if there’s going to be another lockdown,” Stillman said, noting people can become traumatized by their experiences in lockdown.

Stitzel said people who are experiencing PTSD may become irritable more easily, get angry and sometimes start fights or arguments or even turn to alcohol or drugs. Some people also get depressed, he said.

But both Stitzel and Stillman said there are actions people can take to ease their anxiety and stress.

Relax your mind

Find a way to relax, Stillman said. That begins by getting back to basics.

“We’re doing a lot with mindfulness, helping people be aware of what’s immediately happening to them,” Stillman said.

He said when people are more mindful they tend to be calmer and move into problem-solving action more quickly.

He also said people can look at ways to create their new normal — a new normal based around safety. People can look at new ways of socializing and staying in touch during isolation.

“We’ve all been Zooming,” Stillman said.

But he said maybe people could write letters. Or they could get creative in other ways.

Others may want to try having an attitude of gratitude, where you make the little things in life into bigger moments.

He also said people should take this time to have conversations about being safe during the pandemic to people they want in their social circle to decrease the likelihood of spreading the virus.

People should also take a break from social media and the news.

Smiley said the gym has been his go-to place while he’s been out of work since the pandemic started.

“Being stuck in the house, I couldn’t get here and clear my head,” Smiley said. “The gym is like my thinking place.”

Find the place, or person

Stitzel relies on his religion and goes to Faith Baptist Church to help him navigate his PTSD and stress.

He said people who are going through PTSD or other mental health problems should find something daily or even weekly they can do to keep their mind at ease.

“They schedule it, they depend on it, they look forward to it,” Stitzel said.

Stitzel said he’s also been reaching out the veterans over the last few months to check in. He’s gotten other veterans involved, realizing he couldn’t hold the stress of doing it all on his shoulders along with his day-to-day life.

“You do what you can with who you can,” he said.

He calls it the buddy system. He phones a veteran, who perhaps phones another veteran or stops by to check on a fellow former soldier.

It’s an opportunity for the veterans to talk to someone so they aren’t isolating themselves, he said.

He said the same goes for people with PTSD because of COVID or who aren’t feeling like themselves mentally.

He said anyone working through mental health issues should seek out help.

“It doesn’t hurt to sit down with them (a counselor) once and talk with them,” he said. “It’s a little like preventative maintenance.”

And if someone isn’t comfortable with taking any of the other actions then “just at least talk to somebody,” Stitzel said.

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