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COVID-19 crisis poses mental health challenges as well as physical demands

By Robert Goetz | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | March 25, 2020

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas —

Like many communities throughout the United States, Joint Base San Antonio is feeling the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic.

The installation’s Health Protection Condition has been increased to level C and its number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.

JBSA community members and citizens all over the U.S. are using commonsense measures such as washing their hands, practicing social distancing, staying at home and following other public health guidelines to protect themselves from COVID-19, but slowing down the progression of the disease is not the only challenge they face.

This disruption in lives and livelihoods can take an emotional toll on people and greatly impact their mental health.

Social contagion often takes hold in times like this, said Gina Ramirez, JBSA-Randolph Mental Health Outreach coordinator.

“This is the spread of behavior or attitude or emotion from person to person that takes hold, eventually overtaking our communities,” she said. “We’ve seen the fear and anxiety grip our nation these past few weeks with COVID-19. I believe the fear is mostly to do with the fact that we don’t know enough about this virus to be able to predict the outcome.”

Ramirez said the fear and anxiety can lead to fear and worry about a person’s health and the health of their loved ones, changes in sleep or eating patterns, difficulty concentrating, worsening of chronic health problems and the use of negative coping behaviors such as overeating, alcohol abuse and others.

“But there are things you can do to navigate the fear and support yourself,” she said.

One way is to take breaks from watching, reading or listening to news stories, including social media, Ramirez said.

“Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting,” she said. “You won’t miss out on major news by taking a break from at least one form of media. You may also decide to limit your intake between certain hours of the day.”

Taking care of your body is another way to cope with the stresses caused by the pandemic, Ramirez said.

“Take deep breaths, stretch or meditate,” she said. “Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals; exercise regularly; get plenty of sleep; and avoid alcohol and drugs. Now is the time to boost your immunity.”

Ramirez urges people to make time to unwind and do things every day that bring them joy.

“Take a warm bath, read, meditate, listen to a relaxing podcast and find a way to nurture yourself,” she said.

Connecting with others is yet another way to confront the coronavirus crisis.

“Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling,” Ramirez said. “If you are quarantined, this is the perfect time to connect with people who live in your household. Put the phones and social media away and play board games, binge Netflix and just be together.”

She also advised people to “focus on the things that you can control.”

Although staying at home is a prudent measure during a pandemic, it can also create stress in a number of ways, said JBSA-Randolph Chaplain (Capt.) Damon Boucher, who referenced an article concerning the psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it.

“The primary stressors outlined in this article include longer quarantine duration, infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, inadequate information, financial loss and stigma,” he said.

People may not understand why they’re feeling stressed when they’re simply asked to rest and/or work at home, Boucher said.

According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, which quantifies the cumulative effects of stressors on an individual’s health, changes in work hours or conditions, recreation, social activities, sleeping habits, the number of family get-togethers, the health of a family member and personal habits can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental and physical health, Boucher said.

“Even a change in church activities will drastically impact the routine of many in our community and may seriously affect their spiritual resilience during this pandemic,” he said.

It is also important to remember that stress is cumulative, Boucher said.

“We all experience a variety of stressors that can seem overwhelming with the added stressors imposed by the COVID-19 epidemic,” he said. “Those who were able to manage the responsibilities of parenting, work, marriage and various other demands might suddenly feel overwhelmed.”

Boucher offered advice to those who are having trouble coping with the challenges the pandemic poses.

“Many in our Randolph community will be teleworking, which may result in a decreased and/or modified work schedule,” he said. “In order to maintain our spiritual resilience, it is important to seek out a purpose and look for opportunities to serve others.”

Some people may be able to start a virtual support group or online religious study, Boucher said, while others may find purpose in picking up trash in their neighborhood or mowing their neighbor’s lawn.

“Those who have the financial means may find purpose in giving additional money to their church or directly to those in need,” he said. “Regardless of an individual’s religious and/or spiritual preference, we can all gain satisfaction and purpose by serving others.”

There are other opportunities for Airmen and their families during this time of increased restrictions and social distancing, Boucher said.

“Many, for example, will now have additional time to spend with their family and loved ones,” he said. “Others may find the opportunity to start an exercise regimen, read a novel, clean their house or even take an online class.

“Airmen may also find the opportunity to start a devotional reading plan and increase prayer or meditation practices,” Boucher said. “With a little creativity and initiative, Airmen can choose to look for the opportunity in their situation.”

The chaplain also offered reminders of how adversity can forge stronger people and a stronger nation.

“My grandparents loved to boast about living through the Great Depression,” Boucher said. “Those of us who lived through 9/11 remember an entire nation coming together during one of the worst tragedies in our nation’s history.

“Our current situation is really no different,” he said. “We will all come through this season of adversity a little stronger and more resilient.”