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COVID stress: People can support each other by listening, sharing concerns, says NIMHANS professor

A COVID-19 patient being brought to a hospital in New Delhi. File   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The virulent second wave of the pandemic has raised levels of uncertainty among people over infection, availability of treatment, vaccination and possible death of loved ones and oneself, leading to high levels of stress. Dr. K. Sekar, Head of Psychosocial Support in Disaster Management and Professor of Psychiatric Social Work at NIMHANS in Bengaluru stresses on the need to maintain routine activities and stay connected with family and friends to manage the situation.

There is a lot of panic among people these days, which is affecting their mental health. How do you advise them to remain calm in these difficult times of pandemic?

It is important to realise that feeling stressful during the pandemic is a normal reaction. First, people tend to consume a lot of negative news through various channels. Self restricting the inflow of such negative news may be one way of handling it. However, you can keep yourself updated from official sources once a day. Second, it is important to focus on the work at hand. This will divert the attention from negative events. Third, keep some time for family and yourself. Indulge in a hobby, play indoor games, share jokes, and try your hand at developing new skills. Connect with your friends and relatives virtually. These tips may help one to calm oneself and function adaptively during this second wave of pandemic.

How does this fear and panic affect people? Are there any specific symptoms one should watch out for? When should one seek medical support?

Stress, fear and panic may manifest in different ways. Few common features are worries about infections, death, sleep disturbances, sadness, hopelessness, guilt and bereavement from losing loved ones, irritability, anger outbursts, increased use of alcohol, tobacco, and other substances. Not only COVID patients, unaffected general public too are facing mild confusion, poor attention, lack of concentration, and minor forgetfulness. This happens because physical and mental fatigue may impact one’s ability to focus. Uncontrollable stress leads to hormonal imbalance in the body that can affect the brain functioning.

Everybody affected by the pandemic and social restrictions needs support. In most instances, people can support each other. Listening to your friends and relatives in these stressful times, allowing them to share their pent-up feeling may help. Connect with people virtually and support them.

However, a small proportion of people may need medical help. If your anxiety or depression is overwhelming and not allowing you to do your daily chores, disturbing your sleep routine, increasing your alcohol or other drugs use, please call the toll free helpline number 080 46110007 or consult a doctor.

A lot of COVID patients are complaining of mental health issues. Is it the 14- days isolation period that takes a heavy toll on the patient’s mental health or is it the virus?

It can be both. A lot of people find it difficult to live in isolation, which is required to stop the spread of the infection. Basically, we are social beings who like to be cared for when in stress. A 14-day long quarantine can be an emotionally traumatic experience for some people. Then there are severely ill patients who have to spend a lot of time in the intensive care unit. Individual’s coping skills, available social support, severity of the illness, and other co-existing medical problems may all contribute to the level of impact on mental health issues. The virus may affect the brain functioning in different ways and along with poor social support during quarantine/isolation may take a toll on a person’s mental health.

What kind of care do these patients need to recover from mental health issues?

It is important to provide appropriate medical and mental health support to patients both during and post-COVID. For patients who are admitted at quarantine centres or hospitals, it is important that our healthcare providers talk to them regularly, enquire about their fears and worries, and assure them about the treatment plan. Regular briefing about the extent of the disease, the treatment being given and a probable discharge time frame may give them a sense of reassurance and certainty.

Then, based on the illness severity, a patient can also do a lot to help oneself. I feel that following a routine, even when you are in quarantine/isolation, helps. Wake up in the morning, do some mild stretching exercise or breathing exercises; read, listen to music, watch a good movie, connect with your friends or relatives on video calls. If your health allows, do at least a proportion of your routine work. Sleep for 7-8 hours. Those with serious symptoms of anxiety and depression may need mental health assessment and counselling.

Are there any exercises that can help people suffering from COVID-19?

It is specific to an individual’s age, pre-infection physical activity levels and current state of physical capacity. In general, if they are able to follow a part of their regular daily activity, this may help to reduce stress and allow faster recovery. Available research evidences suggest that regular physical activity, nutritious food, yoga, meditation, and pranayama have a healing effect on the body and the mind. Though we don’t suggest any strenuous exercises for COVID patients, they can practice mild breathing and stretching exercises.


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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 2:35:09 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/interview-with-k-sekar-head-of-psychosocial-support-in-disaster-management-and-professor-of-psychiatric-social-work-at-nimhans/article34572307.ece

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