July 29, 2021 by Peter B. Laird
Ask the Psychiatrist: Tending to Your Mental Health During COVID-19
“One of my favorite books is Love in the Time of Cholera, not only because of the love story but also because one of its main characters – Dr. Juvenal Urbino de la Calle – dedicates his research to ending the cholera epidemic,” says Rachel V.F. Rohaidy, M.D., a psychiatrist with Baptist Health Primary Care. “The good news for us is that, with Covid-19, we didn’t have to wait as long as he did to find a vaccine.”
Another positive outcome, she says, has been the rapid adoption of telehealth technology by both patients and physicians, on privacy-protected platforms such as Baptist Health Care On Demand which are fully compliant with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) regulations.
“As mental health professionals, we’ve learned that we can connect with our patients in a new and effective way,” Dr. Rohaidy says. “There was a learning curve for both patients and practitioners at first, but everyone seems to have embraced telemedicine now and it seems to be working well.”
Dr. Rohaidy, who also serves as medical director of The Recovery Village at Baptist Health, understands full well the impact COVID-19 has had on our lives. “Last year was overwhelming and stressful,” she says. “Everyone had to cope with major challenges and changes in their lives.” As a result, she says, there’s been a surge in anxiety, depression and substance abuse among adults and children alike.
“Some of the symptoms of pandemic-related stress we’ve seen include emotions such as fear, anger and sadness; an increase in nightmares, and behavioral changes such as irritability, changes in appetite, decreased interest in life and inability to concentrate or make decisions,” says Dr. Rohaidy.
The pandemic has also affected people physically, she says. “Many patients have reported an increase in headaches, body aches, pain, diarrhea and nausea, all of which are common with anxiety and depression.”
Dr. Rohaidy says she’s seen similar symptoms in COVID-19 patients, as well as other post-infection side effects such as fatigue, brain fog, hair loss, shortness of breath and more. Known as “long haulers,” these patients are experiencing symptoms for six months or longer, which Dr. Rohaidy says can cause additional anxiety, stress and depression.
“Every day, we’re learning more about the long-term effects of COVID-19,” Dr. Rohaidy notes. “Unfortunately, one of the things we’re seeing is that a lot of people – children, included – are coping with the physical and emotional impacts of COVID by turning to alcohol, cannabis, tobacco and other unhealthy solutions.” Instead of alleviating their stress, she says, these can just make your physical or emotional conditions even worse.
Dr. Rohaidy is a strong proponent of positive psychiatry, a whole-body approach to treatment that focuses on the entire person. She helps her patients learn how to cope with stress and anxiety in healthier ways, through resiliency, optimism and social connectedness.
Now that the worst of the pandemic appears to have passed, and people see a light at what’s been a very long and dark tunnel, Dr. Rohaidy hopes they’ll be able to move forward in a positive and healthy direction. She offers some specific tips to help get you started, noting that “These are good for you even if you’re not suffering from anxiety or depression.”
Tending to Your Mental Health in a Pandemic
Dr. Rohaidy says incorporating these health and wellness practices in your daily life will make it easier for you to handle stress and bounce back after the pandemic:
- Eat healthy meals with more fresh, natural, unprocessed ingredients. Eliminate the packaged foods. The more natural, the better.
- Pencil in time to sleep. We need between 8 to 10 hours per night. We also need REM, restorative sleep. It’s difficult to get proper sleep when you need to heal.
- It doesn’t have to be CrossFit. Take a stroll, try and do something every day to keep moving – it helps get the endorphins going and lowers your stress hormones.
- A little caffeine isn’t going to hurt you, and can actually be beneficial to your health. But remember, everything in moderation.
- Cigarettes, processed foods, sugar – you already know they’re harmful to your health so cut back or, better still, cut them out completely. Your body doesn’t need them.
- Take deep breaths, pray, meditate or do whatever it is that lets you take a moment and check in with yourself. It may feel weird or silly, but just give yourself five minutes with you.
- Making some decisions or crossing a few items off your “to do” list is a sure way to help lift a black cloud and improve your outlook.
- Stop isolating and feeling like you have to go it alone. If you can’t physically be with family and friends, reach out to them online or schedule a group video chat. If the faith-based connection works for you, most churches and synagogues have open doors.
Dr. Rohaidy encourages her patients to hold on to something – anything – that helps them stay or feel connected with others. “Human beings are social animals,” she says. “We need to be a part of a group.”
Over the past year, Dr. Rohaidy says, every single one of us has been hurting in some way. “We’ve been sick ourselves, or lost a loved one to COVID, or experienced feelings of isolation and despair,” she says. “I urge everyone to join a community, whether it’s in-person or online, just so you never feel isolated or lonely.”
Most importantly, Dr. Rohaidy says, allow yourself to heal – emotionally, physically and mentally. “You’re not alone. The pandemic has been hard on everyone,” she says. “Focus on doing what you can do to minimize your stress and improve your health.” And if you need additional guidance or motivation, she says, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to seek help.