Protecting your mental health from global stresses

 Protecting your mental health from global stresses


In this article:

  • World events – including COVID -19 and the war in Ukraine – have affected our mental health.

  • Remembering to take care of yourself is an important part of protecting your mental health.

  • Finding small celebrations and focusing on goals are effective ways to build hope for the future.

From COVID -19 to the war in Ukraine to rising gas prices and unemployment across the country – it has a huge impact on your mental health. As a result, many people seek mental health services to cope with stress. Over the past few years, Providence Oregon has experienced a 25% increase in mental health encounters, increasing from 160,000 patient visits in 2018 to more than 200,000 by 2021.

Recently, we listened to a conversation between James Simmons, DNP, board-certified nurse practitioner and host of @asktheNP, and Robin Henderson, PsyD, chief executive of behavioral health in Providence Oregon, in which they discussed importance of protecting your mental health. Here are some highlights.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health as a recurring event created by the Providence Health System.

P. For people who don’t know you, Dr. Robin, tell us who you are.

I am the chief ethical health executive in Providence Oregon, and I am the chief clinical officer at Work2BeWell. Through training, I am a licensed clinical psychologist.

With so much happening in the world, especially the war in Ukraine, how do we regain felt control?

There is now a sense of helplessness, and people are wondering what they can control. This is a good time to think about what you did to find that control. You cannot volunteer in the Ukrainian army, but you can donate to organizations that support relief efforts.

You can also focus on other ways to give back. Volunteer at the local soup kitchen or at church. Finding ways to connect and give back is important to stay strong and not overwhelmed.

For most families, this is the first time they have to explain war to their children. How can we talk to the kids about what happened?

Depending on the age of your child. Let’s start with screen time – images of war are everywhere. Young children – especially those under the age of 10 – are unaware of what they are seeing. It is difficult to understand all this happening in another country. Many probably think this is happening all over town, and they need help understanding that they are safe. Limit screen time and don’t always turn on the news.

With teenagers, we need to talk about it. Discuss what we know and share our own experiences of war. Maybe your grandparents served in World War II or your spouse has retired from the military. Talking to our teens gives them a perspective on our responsibilities as a society to respond to what is happening.

Between the war and things closer to home, like rising gas prices, there are many processes. How does it affect our mental health?

It dragged us to a place where we didn’t feel good, and we didn’t see self-care. Maybe you don’t get enough exercise or you don’t disconnect from technology. With everything that happens around the world, disconnecting can make you feel guilty-like you always have to have something to do to help. However, taking care of yourself so that you can fulfill your responsibilities is one thing. We cannot be caught in the dysfunction that causes us to develop the learned inability.

How can we protect ourselves and not be led into learned helplessness?

Turn off the TV, relax your brain and get a good night’s sleep. Drink enough water and exercise. Whether it’s going to a spa for a face or playing racquetball, those kinds of things contribute to self-care.

Prioritize spending time with loved ones. Talk about what happened but relax and talk about other things. If we don’t get a different perspective, we will be caught in a spiral that can weigh us down and upset our loved ones.

To cope with stress, is it okay to watch something mindless on TV?

Yes, allow yourself to live the hour. There are some good mindless reality TV out there. Let your mind escape somewhere else for a while. It will give you that new perspective.

How can we step back when we are already overwhelmed?

Be thoughtful and deliberate about what you do. Focus on slow breathing several times a day. If you do, your brain can only think about breathing – that’s enough to interrupt a panic attack. Do this a few times each day with intent, and you will regain perspective.

This is also a good time to start an appreciation journal. Even if it’s just one thing every day – maybe your morning latte – write it down. Over time, you can review the things you are grateful for. Again, this is a shift in perspective. Find things that inspire you and add them to your life with purpose.

Changing gear, how do we manage the lingering anxiety of COVID and the feeling that we still have to hide?

We all make our own decisions in individual, real-time moments. If I walk in a place where I’m uncomfortable with a lot of unknown people, I feel better in the mask. Or if I catch a cold, I’ll wear one to keep the others safe.

We must forget the idea that masks are a political statement. This is a health care issue. It’s a tool we created to help immunocompromised people function more normally in society. Hopefully, as the mask order is raised, people will remember that it is just a health care concern.

How do we respond to people who are stressed, angry?

Have grace. You never know what someone is going through. Maybe they lost a job or a loved one. If someone you know is overly frustrated or angry, your first response should be to ask what happened. Use a trauma-informed approach and understand that anger is the secondary emotion that comes from pain and fear. For someone you don’t know, keep the comments to yourself and leave the situation.

How can we feel comfortable planning for the future?

We need a small dose of good stuff. Little celebrations, like graduations or birthdays, that we can do and have fun. These things can rebuild our society, our families, and our communities. They are pieces of hope that people will get back to life and rejoin the workforce or school.

What are the last two takeaways you want to give everyone?

Find something fun every day. Above all, do good for someone just because. It doesn’t matter if you do it anonymously. Find someone to share your gratitude with and do good for others.

Listen to the entire podcast

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Relevant resources

Holistic way of living well

Quick tips for challenging times

10 things you need in your bad-day toolkit

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow the instructions of your healthcare professional.

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