UNIVERSITY PARK — The COVID-19 pandemic is drawing even more attention to the importance of mental health and well-being as people adapt to changing daily routines, worry about health and finances, and face an uncertain future.

“Even though it is temporary, the pandemic calls for us to think and behave differently, at least for now,” said Denise Continenza, an educator with Penn State Extension’s food, family and health program team.

“COVID-19 has added more weight to the emotional loads that we carry, and many of the positive ways we cope with the stresses of life, such as going to a gym or getting together with a group of friends, are not available right now.”

She said although people respond to stressful situations in different ways, there are steps they can take to care of themselves and their family and better manage stress. Her advice seems especially relevant right now because May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an observance designed to raise awareness and dispel some of the common myths about mental illness.

To begin with, Continenza said, it can be helpful for people to take a daily inventory of what they are feeling by asking these three questions: What did I do to help myself cope today? Were those coping strategies helpful? Did I do things that were healthy and productive, or could they cause damage to my well-being?

Strategies for managing during stressful times can be grouped into three categories: the good, the bad and the ugly.

“Good” tactics are those that someone finds relaxing, rejuvenating or distracting, without causing harm to one’s physical, mental or psychological health. Examples of positive ways to deal with stress include listening to music, exercising, reading, writing, exploring a new hobby or spending more time on current interests, watching movies, and connecting with your higher power through meditation, prayer or mindfulness.

“Stick to your usual routine but allow for flexibility,” Continenza said. “It’s important to maintain social connections virtually or by phone and consciously practice gratitude. And though it can be hard to do, I recommend limiting how much you watch the news.”

“Bad” coping mechanisms, while often distracting, are activities that draw one down a path of negative coping patterns. These behaviors include hyper-focusing on the news, accepting all information as truth, spending more time on current events than on personal interests, spending excessive time on social media, eating more than usual, increased shopping online, and increased use of alcohol, tobacco or medication.

Finally, the “ugly” ways of coping include alcohol abuse, medication misuse, angry outbursts/rage, excessive crying, reckless behavior, over/under eating and sleeping, and engaging in risky behaviors.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services recently launched the Support and Referral Helpline to provide support to people dealing with the emotional impacts of COVID-19. The phone number is 855-284-2494.

“At the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves the three questions and decide how we are managing,” Continenza said. “If we find ourselves or someone we know spending more time in the ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ parts of the spectrum, it is probably time to ask for help. And remember, asking for help is a sign of strength and not weakness.”

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