Ask the Expert: Coping with COVID-19
By Brian Hiro
It’s hard to grasp the seemingly endless ways that the coronavirus pandemic can be damaging to people’s mental health.
Maybe you have a loved one who has suffered from, or even died from, COVID-19. Maybe you’re a front-line health worker and live in constant fear of being exposed to the disease.
Maybe you’re one of the millions of Americans who have been laid off from their job and are struggling to pay the bills. Maybe you own a small business and aren’t sure whether it will be able to survive.
Maybe you’re a student who struggles with virtual learning. Maybe you’re a 2020 college graduate who missed their commencement and faces a dire job market.
Or maybe your fear and uncertainty are more general and you’re just wondering how long this new reality will last and when life will ever return to normal.
COVID-induced stress is everywhere and can have serious effects if left unattended. In this edition of Ask the Expert, Cal State San Marcos psychology professor Aleksandria Perez Grabow discusses coping with COVID-19. Grabow joined the CSUSM faculty last fall after earning a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Oregon. She has worked as a rape crisis counselor, and her academic studies concern various types of trauma and related outcomes.
Question: What classes did you teach this spring, and what was it like when COVID-19 interrupted everything? How did your students handle it?
Aleksandria Perez Grabow: This spring, I taught PSYC 340: Survey of Clinical Psychology and CHAD 491: Children, Adolescents and Social Policy, two upper-division courses in the psychology department. Following the interruption of the semester by the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel like faculty, staff and students alike were scrambling to keep our heads above water. I was touched by the patience and compassion with which my students handled the transition to a virtual environment within the scope of two weeks. Overall, I think students were understandably stressed, anxious and overwhelmed by the interruption, but also demonstrated a level of resilience given the unprecedented circumstances.
Q: We’re now almost three months into COVID-19 being an ever-present issue in our lives. How do you think Americans are coping in general?
APG: It’s hard to say; I honestly think it depends on who/which groups you talk to. The idea of quarantine has now been normalized to an extent, so the experiences of isolating, wearing face masks, et cetera, may not be as stressful and foreign as they were at the start of the pandemic. Now that the country is starting to re-open, some folks are experiencing an increase in anxiety, while others may be feeling relieved. At the same time, our Black communities are coping not only with the health disparity outcomes related to COVID-19, but with the resurgence of historical, racial trauma reflected in the current events. It’s fair to say many people are struggling to cope, especially our more vulnerable populations. With the global media coverage of both the pandemic and protests, one way in which I see hope is that we see others who are experiencing similar struggles. It can be helpful for people to see and know that they are not alone in their struggles.
Q: You specialize in the study of trauma. How would you describe the effects of COVID-19 in that sense? How does it compare to more traditional sources of trauma?
APG: For me, the pandemic is reflective of a collective trauma, one that has affected an entire society. For many of us, our way of living and our sense of safety have been threatened by the pandemic. We hear the phrase “the new normal” thrown around a lot nowadays, communicating that the ways in which we once conducted our normal routines and lifestyles will likely look different in the future. There’s a grieving process that accompanies this, and a lot of us have already started to feel these emotions – shock, denial, anger, guilt, sadness, exhaustion, to name a few. As a collective, it’s important to acknowledge and validate these emotional struggles to be able to move into a place of healing, acceptance and action. As we move forward, I think it will be interesting to see how we shape our narrative and make meaning of this experience, and what we’ll tell future generations. The unique aspect of a collective trauma, as compared to other types or sources of trauma, is that we have a built-in community that is going through a similar struggle, with whom we can heal.
Q: What do you think are the best steps people can take to ward off the most damaging effects of this pandemic on their mental health?
APG: I think we can try to find a balance between reframing our struggles to recognize the resilience and strength that have come out of this situation with validating these struggles in a safe space. It’s important to note that not all folks might be at a place to start positively reframing their experience of the pandemic, and that’s OK. As a whole, we can start the healing process through allowing ourselves to experience, express and move through these negative emotions (through talking, writing, art, music, movement/engagement in physical activities, crying, etc.). Overall, I think all of us can benefit from finding a healthy way to soothe and express ourselves. This could look like reaching out for support, seeking professional help, and practicing self-soothing, sensory and mindfulness exercises.
Q: What are you doing personally as a way to cope?
APG: I’m fortunate to be living with family; my husband is my rock, and we have a 10-month-old who keeps us on our toes, so I’ve framed this for myself as an extended maternity leave. The research I’m engaging in is also centered around current social justice issues, so I feel rejuvenated during lab meetings with my team.
Q: What advice would you give to parents whose children are struggling with stress or mental health issues related to the pandemic?
APG: My 10-month-old was previously in a family daycare setting twice a week, so even though I’m more than happy to spend more time with her and foster attachment, I know she misses being around other little people. I have so much love for parents out there who are adjusting to these circumstances; parenthood is challenging enough on its own! I think it’s important to emphasize that parents absolutely need to make sure they are looking after themselves so that they can be present for their children. That could be having a few minutes to drink tea or coffee, taking a longer shower than usual, doing something simple but enjoyable before bed, etc. A little bit of self-care can go a long way, physically, emotionally and mentally.
For parents whose children are experiencing mental health challenges during this pandemic, creating a space for their child to process their issues is important. That might look like having an open dialogue with their child, finding a professional for the child to work with (e.g., via telehealth), or finding out how their child best expresses themselves (e.g., physical movement, art, verbal) and being a little creative in creating an opportunity for them to engage in this.
Q: Do you see signs of hope amid all the devastation wrought by this crisis? What are they?
APG: Two beautiful aspects of people that bring me hope are our ability to make meaning out of difficult situations as we heal and our desire to connect with one another. I study this intersection through trying to understand how media interacts with our healing. In this pandemic, for example, social media has provided us with a platform to communicate via a Zoom session, an inspirational post, with a therapist via telehealth, through Reddit threads, etc., even with people we may not know but who are also going through similar struggles. There are benefits to being able to create and share memes and GIFs – whether about the pandemic, politics or “Tiger King” – to post TikTok videos and song parodies about life in quarantine, and to invite others to a chain photo challenge. My research lab is currently doing a study examining the positive and negative aspects of media use and exposure on mental health outcomes during this pandemic, so I look forward to sharing our findings with the campus and greater community. Our healing will take time, but I have no doubts that we can and will actively overcome these challenges with the help of one another.
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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