In a matter of weeks, life at UNC Charlotte has changed drastically as the University does its part in limiting the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Students have left the dorms, online classes are in full swing and Mecklenburg County is implementing a stay-at-home order for three weeks starting March 26. These abrupt changes in routine are often harmful to our mental health, says Dr. Erica Lennon, Assistant Director for Outreach at the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). 

“Social distancing promotes social isolation that can fuel a lot of mental health concerns like depression and anxiety,” Lennon says. Here are a few of her recommendations for how to cope: 

Replace “social distancing” with a “responsible radius”

“We want to shift the concept of social distancing to a responsible radius,” says Lennon. “Social distancing contributes to the mentality around social isolation, as if we just need to be in a room with the door locked and hunker down and make it through the next couple of months.”

The term “social distancing” has also contributed to racist and xenophobic rhetoric, adds Lennon. “There’s this idea that when we separate ourselves it’s ‘us’ versus ‘them.’”  

Instead, a “responsible radius” suggests that we depend on one another. This idea may feel unnatural to Western societies, which are often dominated by individualistic perspectives.

One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to stay connected with people. Lennon suggests calling in lieu of texting.

Implement strategies to manage anxiety

There are many types of anxieties that can surround COVID-19, ranging from existential worries to logistical concerns.

“One important thing is to have a routine that involves a plan of action and steps that you are going to take. A lot of times anxiety spirals when we have unstructured time. Create a new routine that involves any sort of thing you need to get done, including logistical tasks and self care,” suggests Lennon.  

She recommends spending an hour outside and staying physically active. 

It’s also important to attend to your basic needs, whether that be applying for unemployment benefits, visiting the Jamil Niner Student Pantry or setting up a virtual appointment with a counselor at CAPS

Arm yourself with information and ground yourself in science

Especially for those who struggle with OCD or anxiety related to germs, Lennon recommends reminding yourself of information grounded in science. Having accurate information can help you interrupt anxious thoughts and replace them with more productive ones. For example, the Center for Disease Control’s specific recommendations for how to properly wash your hands is a tried and true method that may alleviate fear about germs. 

Consider the silver linings  

“We’re so quick to go to all of the negatives, but I do think there are potential benefits in this situation,” says Lennon. 

For one, it can be a time to connect with our friends and family. “A lot of the time we get so caught up in the work we have to do with classes and jobs that we don’t really settle into our relationships and spend quality time,” Lennon says. 

This is also an opportunity to reflect on our lives and consider some changes we want to make. “Too often we’re in go-go-go mode and we don’t have the option to think about what we’re prioritizing in our lives.” 

In the long-term, Lennon thinks COVID-19 will demonstrate the importance of attending to mental health. Although the current concern is primarily about physical health, Lennon predicts that physical health will improve before mental health does, calling it the “second phase.” It’s important to consider her recommendations and safeguard this part of our wellbeing.  

CAPS is providing services through telehealth. To schedule an appointment call 704-687-0311. Students can also follow them on social media to receive more tips on safeguarding mental health.

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