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Coping with Coronavirus Anxiety

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Mental health director has some tips

Ebony Clarke (right), director of the Multnomah County Mental Health and Addiction Services Division, addresses a meeting last fall of county commissioners. Clarke and other county workers in mental health are reaching out to the local community with helpful information on coping with anxiety in the face of the current coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). (Photo courtesy Multnomah County)

Multnomah County is reaching out to the local community with helpful information on coping with anxiety in the face of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).

Anxiety doesn’t always look the way we think it will, like forcing deep breaths, having a rapid heart rate or crying. And it’s not just something in our heads.

Public health authorities say anxiety can cause physical illness, affecting people’s sight, hearing and stomachs. Some people feel chest pain and shortness of breath. For others anxiety presents like a flu, causing muscle pain, temperature changes, dizziness and headaches.

“Everyone manages stress and anxiety in their own way, and we want to remind everyone that those reactions are normal,” said Ebony Clarke, director of the Multnomah County Health Department’s Behavioral Health Division. “With COVID-19 spreading, and people physically isolating, it makes sense that people would feel overwhelmed, fearful or sad.”

Multnomah County has updated most of its new behavioral health services to prioritize the health and safety of the public and staff. Although many offices are physically closed to the public, staff is still available by phone and email.

“We know that mental health is crucial. We’re leveraging technology to find alternatives to support people. Much of what we are doing is through video conferencing and telehealth,” Clarke said. “For the handful of individuals we do need to see in person, we’re finding ways to follow social distancing requirements and keep our consumers and staff safer.”

Most people feel some level of fear or depression right now, with residents ordered to stay home and avoid physical contact with anyone outside their household. For some that means being physically alone. For others it means unemployment.

Many are also feeling anxiety right now. Officials can’t tell us how long we’ll be isolated or what this will do to our economy; health experts can’t say how many people will get sick and how many will die.

Clarke is among thousands of Oregonians who must stay home, so she focuses on the silver lining where she can. She

Enjoying quality time with family in your house is one way to cope with anxiety in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy Multnomah County)

normally works long hours outside her home so she’s choosing to be grateful for the time she’s now spending working alongside her husband and two sons.

“I’ve been able to enjoy that and reconnect,” she said. “That’s the piece that keeps me going.”

Clarke connects with her mother, Helen, through video chatting and sends her little gifts to lift her spirits. On a recent Saturday night, that meant ordering her mother a Domino's pizza and a liter of Sprite. And as an active member of her church, Clarke logs onto weekly video services.

“When I don’t connect or talk to anyone at church, I start to get anxious, fearful and worried,” she said. “My faith grounds me. It helps bring a sense of peace.”

Experts say there are things we can do, every day, to ease anxiety and depression and support your mental health. Some examples are staying in touch with the people you love; showing affection to your pets; taking some deep breaths; praying, exploring mindfulness and making a gratitude list.

Protecting your physical health came come with getting up and going to sleep at a consistent time; eating well; moving your body by taking a walk, practicing yoga and gardening. You can feed you creative self by making art, taking photos, reading books, writing a story and keeping a journal.

Lynn Smith-Stott, supervisor for the Multnomah County Office of Consumer Engagement at the Behavioral Health Division, has been at home for more than a week. She says she’s had moments of overwhelming anxiety.

Not only is Smith-Stott personally at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, she also has family living in high-risk areas of Washington state.

But she’s employing her training as a social worker and skills acquired in long-term recovery from addiction and mental illness to keep her spirits up. Here are a few:

Keep a gratitude list: “I have been counting each day the things I am grateful for. I’m grateful I have a job and I can do meaningful work. I’m grateful that I’m well. I’m grateful for my family and friends,” she said. “What I try to do is catch those moments throughout the day. I’m grateful right now that I’m looking out on my gardens. My wife planted flowers this weekend.”

Before isolating at home as part of the state order on social distancing, Dr. Nimisha Gokaldas, medical director for Behavioral Health, traveled to Houston to bury her father.

His death prompted her to see how vulnerable the rest of her family was to COVID-19. Her sister is a family doctor, and she’s also pregnant. Her mother is older and at higher risk of complications from the virus.

“A lot of people are worried about family right now,” she said. “I think that’s very normal.”

While she works from home, Gokaldas has tried to focus her energy on the things she can control, and that includes her own health.

She takes breaks from her duties, taking the time to move and eats healthy.

“Fresh produce is what we should be eating. And there’s lots of it in the grocery stores. People are buying canned food. But fresh fruits and vegetables are great. If you don’t like a lot of prep work, buy precut or frozen produce,” Gokaldas said.

She tries to limit the news she watches to a small portion of the day.

“I get up. I read the New York Times headlines. And that’s the only time I read the news. The rest of my day is not spent checking the headlines.”

She recommends reading a book and keeping up on exercise.

“It’s silly, but I get up every morning and do burpees. It makes me wish I wasn’t doing them, and it makes me feel incredibly accomplished in five minutes.”

For mindfulness, she says “Just try a quick two-minute breathing exercise. Inhale for four seconds and exhale for four seconds. Having to count helps you focus on something else. Mindfulness, meditation, prayer. It’s all the same thing. It’s like gratitude practice, flipping my fear to my gratitude. Those feelings of fear are normal, but you don’t want to allow yourself to sit in it.”

Although many County offices are physically closed to the public, staff is still available by phone and email. Most services have been modified to prioritize the health and safety of both the public and Multnomah County staff. Many services are still being offered online, via telephone or via virtual venues.

If you are in crisis, if you want help finding a mental health provider, or if you just need to talk, now is the time to call. Dial: 503-988-4888; toll-free: 800-716-9769; hearing-impaired: 7-1-1. For immediate care during a mental health crisis, to speak with a psychiatrist or mental health nurse practitioner, or for help with medication and treatment, visit the urgent walk-in clinic, open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 4212 S.E. Division St., or dial 503-963-2575.

Other mental health services in Multnomah County during COVID-19:

Child Abuse and Response Services (CARES NW) (link is external): CARES NW is open for urgent services. Services are available telephonically. Call 503-276-9000.

Commitment Services: Call 503-988-4888.

Early Assessment and Support Alliance (EASA): Some services are being provided telephonically. For more information call 503-988-4888.

Early Childhood Mental Health: Services are being provided telephonically. Call 503-329-0829.

Mental Health and Addiction Services Care Coordination: Many services are being provided telephonically. Call 503-988-4888.

Mental Health Adult Protective Services (APS): Call 503-988-8170.

School Based Mental Health: Services are being provided telephonically and in person at Parkrose School Based Health Center that remains open.

Thanks to the office of Multnomah County Communications for contributing this story.

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