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How to Achieve Good Mental Health During 'Lost Year'

Health Experts Weigh In on Building Resiliency in the Year of COVID-19 and Beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed or canceled life milestones like leaving home for college, getting married, celebrating graduations and taking summer vacations. The losses, combined with experts' predictions that a widely available COVID-19 (coronavirus) vaccine is still many months away, has many dubbing 2020 as a lost year.

Itai Danovitch, MD, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, and other experts at Cedars-Sinai are helping patients and their families navigate the feelings of loss, stress and anxiety during a year when nothing seems to have gone according to plan.

"There's a difficult dance going on right now – we began a little bit of a return to normalcy, and now are having to retreat back," Danovitch said. "This is hitting some of us very hard, particularly those who were already running on fumes. We are beset with uncertainty. Is it going to get worse? Can I ride this out? Am I going to have the things that I rely on, like my work, return to normal? If my kids are not in school, who will care for them? Am I going to be able to see people? These unresolved questions are part of what has been so stressful about this."

Those observations were echoed by Rabbi Jason Weiner, PhD, senior rabbi and director of Spiritual Care.

"Patients are expressing to us worries about everything from the pandemic to racial tensions, economic fears, and just kind of general worries about the state of world," Weiner said.

Building Resiliency

In March, Danovitch told the Cedars-Sinai Newsroom that the keys to managing the stress and anxiety associated with the pandemic are recognizing your feelings, practicing self-care and compassion for others, and reaching out when you need help.

Now, four months later and nearly six months into the pandemic, Danovitch said that practicing those techniques daily helps build resiliency.

"What many of us are going through can be described using those five stages of grief first described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross – denial, anger, submission, bargaining and finally acceptance," Danovitch said. "But we need to be patient, give ourselves time to acknowledge our emotions, reflect on what we have and who we have, and find a sense of purpose that can fuel our drive to move forward."

Like Danovitch, Weiner and the team of chaplains at Cedars-Sinai have been helping people cope. At a time when visitor policies have been tightened to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, the chaplains are helping patients, staff and visitors adjust to being supported virtually.

"We're encouraging people to find strategies, to use techniques they've successfully used in the past to cope with problems, and to try new things," Weiner said. "It can be prayer or reading or exercise or music. It can be finding people who are supportive and staying away from people who are not; taking time to breathe and be kind to yourself; and avoiding spaces that are especially damaging, whether it's social media or the news."

Weiner said the spiritual care team has seen an increased interest in reiki classes – a mindfulness meditation technique that helps promote relaxation and healing.

Accessing Services

According to Danovitch, for those who already have existing physical and mental health conditions, the stress of all this uncertainty can exacerbate these issues, or can contribute to new problems.

"The best way to help somebody who is struggling is to encourage them to reach out to their doctor, or to contact their health plan to determine how to access mental health services. It’s important for people to recognize that most psychiatric conditions are treatable. There are effective talk therapies and effective medications," Danovitch said. "Letting people know that they are not alone and that they have options is very important."

Danovitch encourages people to reach out and ask for help if stress, anxiety or depression are beginning to interfere with the ability to perform daily tasks or do things they enjoy.

"2020 doesn't have to be a lost year," Danovitch said. "It can be the year we grew through adversity and strengthened our individual and collective resilience."

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai blog: How to Handle Anxiety and Recognize If It's a Problem.