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Focus On What You Can Control as Our Communities Reopen

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As the region slowly begins to resume some normal activities, you may be feeling relief as well as a bit of anxiety. While the lure of a more familiar lifestyle is inviting, the coronavirus is still active in our communities.

If heading back out into the community worries you, know that those feelings are normal for a time like this, said Bella Vasoya, clinical psychologist with Samaritan Health Services. She offers some suggestions for making the transition more smoothly.

Control What You Can

“People are feeling a lot of anxiety right now, which can come from the feeling of not having control,” said Dr. Vasoya. “When patients express their fears, I ask them to take a step back for a moment and ask themselves, what part of the equation can you control, then focus on that.”

“For example, we can choose to wear a mask or wash our hands. We can choose whether to go inside the grocery store or to use a service like Instacart to have items delivered. We have control over these small, but very effective day-to-day decisions which will help us take care of ourselves and our families. When we feel some control over what is going on, we feel more at ease,” she said.

Feel Emotions & Let Them Go

Uncertainty and stress can wreak havoc on our bodies and right now, we may feel a heightened sense of emotions. While emotions are valuable and informative, we do not have to be controlled by them, said Dr. Vasoya.

“I remind my patients that emotions last only 90 seconds. What keeps emotions lingering are the stories we tell ourselves about them,” she said. “When strong feelings arise, say them out loud and recognize them. Do not try to fix or change them, simply notice what is happening free of judgment. The feeling will pass. “

She notes that emotions prompt a physical response in our bodies, and anxiety and fear, can trigger the fight or flight mechanisms within us.

According to Dr. Vasoya, anxiety triggers our limbic system, which is where the amygdala (emotion center of our brain) and hippocampus (memory center of our brain) live. When we experience something emotional, the emotion center of our brain sends a message to the memory center to see if we have experienced anything like this before. The hippocampus, which is like a library, sorts through memories and if it finds one that remotely fits the experience, it shoots an alarm back to the amygdala, causing a physiological response that tells our bodies to keep worrying. When we simply notice anxiety without giving in to it, the emotion relaxes its hold on us. 

Regularly practicing relaxation techniques can help us become better prepared to modulate our emotions when they arise, she added.

“A good, simple way to relax is to pause and take five deep belly breaths. These breaths help our bodies to reset,” she said. “You can do this exercise multiple times a day, whenever you need a moment of peace.”

Grounding in the Present

When we are particularly worried or anxious about something, we tend to “fast-forward” in our thoughts, imagining what could happen in an effort to have control over the situation. If you have ever worried over a child who is out past curfew, you may understand how this happens. Anxious over why he or she is not home yet, you imagine every possible scenario that could prevent their timely arrival. While this is perfectly normal, it isn’t always the most helpful strategy.

To keep us from imagining the future, Dr. Vasoya recommends that we focus on grounding ourselves in the present moment.

“I imagine anxiety like a balloon that has been released into the sky bouncing up and down, here and there, completely at the whim of the wind. But when we are grounded, we are fully rooted to the place where we are. We all feel better when we are grounded,” she said.

A simple practice called Five Senses Grounding, is a technique that takes a couple minutes and can quickly bring us back to the present moment.

Start by touching something and focusing on what it feels like. Is it smooth or rough? Describe the texture, the weight, the shape. Try to notice every detail as if you were going to describe it to another person. Then move through your other senses – sight, sound, smell, and taste being mindful of each tiny detail.

“The act of engaging your senses will take you out of anxiety and worry and bring you back to the present moment,” she said.

Just like the deep belly breaths, this exercise can be done multiple times a day, whenever you feel anxious.

Ask for Clarity in Discussions

Part of the transition back to a more normal society will also involve taking new behaviors with us, such as the wearing of face coverings while in public settings, at medical appointments and in many other places where people gather.

Wearing face coverings will require new ways of communicating, said Dr. Vasoya.

“We are used to relying on visual cues, such as a smile or a grimace, when we communicate one-on-one with people as a way to enhance what we are saying,” she said. “When wearing face masks, it’s harder to read people. As a result, we may need to be more verbal than we are used to.”

Particularly in a one-on-one setting with a medical provider, not being able to read the other’s face can be a challenge, said Dr. Vasoya.

“In situations where we may feel vulnerable, such as at a medical appointment, being unable to read your doctor’s face can be tough. I will tell my patients to feel free to ask me direct questions, such as ‘What are you thinking?’ anytime they are not sure of my reaction. I encourage others to try that with their own provider,” she said.

The same is true when interacting professionally, or with family and friends. Ask more questions or describe what you’re feeling when communicating in these times.

“Since we can’t see your smile, tell us you are smiling right now, or when passing by another person, wave or give them a thumbs-up as a way of saying, I see you,” Dr. Vasoya said. “Think of ways you can communicate clearly without using the cues we’re used to.”

Self-care is always a good practice for our physical and mental health, perhaps never more so than during a pandemic.

“Taking a few small steps is something we can do to make an uncertain situation more tolerable,” said Dr. Vasoya.

“I try to remind people that most of us have never experienced a pandemic before so how we react to it is new for each of us. We are all trying to do the best we can to figure out how to live in this new environment,” she said.

The apprehension of these uncertain times affects us all. Like you, staff at Samaritan Health Services are concerned about keeping our patients and communities safe and are doing everything we can to “control what we can control” as we reopen our hospitals and clinics to non-emergent surgeries and procedures. We are restricting visitors, limiting in-person appointments, stepping up screening procedures for those who enter our facilities and are separating those with COVID-19 symptoms from other patients. Additionally, we are using enhanced disinfection practices and requiring physical distancing and face coverings.

Dr. Vasoya sees patients at the Samaritan Weight Management Institute. Looking for a Samaritan psychologist or other clinician? We can help you find a good match for your needs. Call us at 800-863-5241.