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Our Powers in the Face of a Pandemic

March 17, 2020

By H. Steven Moffic, MD
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The opinions expressed by Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.

It seems that most of us—administrators, clinicians, patients, the public—feel out of control as coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic-related restrictions are rapidly escalating. Lack of control increases fear. Too much fear can compromise our immune system, which in turn may increase our vulnerability to infection. So, one way to health and mental health is to regain as much control as practically possible. Although it is St. Patrick’s Day as I write this, we shouldn’t depend on the luck of the Irish!

This is the third blog I’ve written since the coronavirus became apparent in the United States. As conditions change, more frequent mental health updates are necessary. In this one, let me count 10 forms of power we hold in the face of a pandemic, listed in alphabetical order:

  1. The Power of Accurate Information. Children especially need good information about what is happening regarding the virus, but there is a lot of confusion in the media about that. Find trusted sources. Among those I'm closely following: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci, MD, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
  2. The Power of Advocacy. Although it is important to follow our governmental and scientific guidelines and rules, that doesn’t mean that citizens cannot question the powers-to-be and advocate for what they think is needed. Stay engaged.
  3. The Power of Creativity. In our field of mental healthcare, the need for distancing and hygienic practices necessitates finding safe ways to see patients as well as interacting with colleagues. Learn from those who have already done online sessions.
  4. The Power of Eating Well. Whereas most of the fear right now seems to be of running out of food, another problem may be the reverse. Overeating and drinking may be more likely at home, with cooking for comfort and the lack of usual exercise places to shed those extra calories.
  5. The Power of Now. Focus on what needs to be done now, especially for more vulnerable patients, rather than worrying too much about an unknown future and what should have been done in the past. Avoid schadenfreude, the German word for delight in the pain of others, that you feel toward those you believe are responsible for some of the suffering. What they do now is essential, as we are in this together.
  6. The Power of Organization. Even as needs and rules remain fluid, scheduling—though it may need frequent updating—can feel grounding.
  7. The Power of Prevention. Even now, if you haven't done so already, get your flu shot and be sure you have adequate, but not excessive, basic supplies. Unethical hoarding and price-gouging may boomerang back and hurt most everybody.
  8. The Power of Relaxation. Most of us have learned of some way to relax, including exercise, music, reading and meditation, which can be used when anxiety escalates. If not, some deep breathing may provide some calming.
  9. The Power of Sacrifice. Like World War II or President John F. Kennedy’s admonition to ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, we all have to make sacrifices for each other. Helping others will increase our own happiness.
  10. The Power of Spirituality. When we physically distance 6 feet or more, we not only can still connect socially, but spiritually as well. Religious institutions are finding online substitution for their practices, and we individually, whether religious or not, can try to make our interpersonal interactions holy and sacred, in the I-Thou spirit of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.

Though psychiatry often stresses the importance of the past, now is the time to not think about that so much or assess blame, but to control the present as much as we can. Usually, people are at their best in an acute crisis. This one will linger on, which will bring us a new set of ongoing adjustments. Stay tuned for commentary on that upcoming mental challenge.

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