People using distraction to cope with pandemic isolation
Finding balance between survival and what makes surviving worthwhile has become a crisis stemming from the isolation that is felt because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Health Solutions experts Adult Services Director Katie Ledbetter, Crestone Recovery Services Director Jessical Russell and Crisis Services Directot Teah Miller have witnessed the population resort to self-soothing by means of distraction as a coping mechanism throughout the pandemic.
Whether it be loneliness from the isolation or anxiety and hopelessness because of the unknowns regarding what direction the world is going – people are missing social connection and the repercussions may be residual in the coming years.
“The exacerbation of these feelings – people are coping differently,” Ledbetter said. “People are turning to things like social media or just online use far more than what was already a really high rate. We know that those kind of interactions – they aren’t void of social value, but they have a really different social impact. It isn’t the same as engaging with a person. It’s like we’re coming close to something that feels similar, but we’re not walking away with the same benefits, and I don’t know if we’re all necessarily aware of that.”
Ways individuals are coping can include social media, online use, shopping and gambling; but Ledbetter noted generally these aren’t recognized as unhealthy coping mechanisms.
“All of these things that we don’t necessarily stigmatize in the way that we do substance use – all of those behaviors are increased right now. People are looking to escape and they are doing it in any way that they can, and we’re all falling into some of our old habits that feel very comfortable and familiar that are not healthy and are not serving us well.”
Dating apps have adapted to the isolation of the pandemic offering avenues for the population to utilize the various applications to meet both romantic and platonic interests. But Russell noted she hasn’t yet seen this used firsthand.
“That might be a discrepancy in our population,” Russell noted. “Our population tends to not have access to the technology advancements that many of us take for granted like getting an app or video calling. So, I don’t know that all of our clients have benefited from it. I know that some of our clients have engaged with televideo – I oversee the substance use programing. So, many of them have tried to engage in virtual NA/AA meetings as well as support group platforms and a lot of the (platforms) have really tried to embrace telephone add-ons as well so that any individual with any technology can join those kinds of calls.”
Miller added even when technology isn’t a barrier, attempting to make connections and not having other resources to do so can ultimately lead to crisis.
“We’ve seen people here who may have been involved in some kind of support network like AA or even Friendly Harbor, and even if technology isn’t a barrier – sometimes it’s like trying to re-enforce a positive habit,” Miller added. “When it was a habit to go to your AA meetings every Thursday, now you have to try to realign to a new process for that. We are seeing some people who have trouble making those connections and are getting into crisis situations.”
Ledbetter noted the repercussions of either creating a new habit or adapting to a habit that has been forced to change.
“Transferring an existing habit to a new venue creates this giant gap, and people are falling through,” Ledbetter said. “So, the support system is still there – but building a new habit, especially if they are struggling or vulnerable in other ways is really hard.”
For this reason, Russell noted, a main focus of behavioral health experts has been providing people with the means to help themselves in stressful situations.
“We’ve spent this entire time talking about, ‘OK, right now you’re able to come in, and so let’s use this time to build your resources in case something changes again.’” Russell said. “We are planning for that kind of allover approach and response of, ‘How can we help you be ready?’”
Ledbetter added this is a survive or thrive situation. A mode of survival that may not serve the best interest of anyone.
“We work constantly to try to help people build up a tool box, so whatever job comes up they have the tool that fits and aren’t using one standard tool to apply to everything,” Ledbetter said. “It feels like we have seen clients dissociated from this situation, just kind of checked out and numb, like many people are. What I hear from our providers and what I see, is that folks are just distracting themselves. That’s the go-to tool right now, is just to distract.”
Ledbetter added that diversifying clients’ tool set is another main focus, noting while distraction is a survival strategy - not giving attention to the situation an individual is attempting to escape from doesn’t mean the situation will disappear.
“We’re really trying to encourage our clients as much as we can to lean into the bad feelings, while making sure we are building that tool box that is responsive to the things we are feeling that are underneath the situation we are trying to distract ourselves from or escape from in some ways,” Ledbetter said.
But the extreme changes to everyday life, are something that could not have been predicted, Russell noted.
“We’ve seen some great things with different support apps that clients have been able to latch onto,” Russell said. “Then we’ve seen some people who have recovery plans for substance use totally blown out of the water and their relapsing and struggling because this is a really hard time. Nobody had the ability to see just how devastating this would be, and how quickly it would change how all of us function.”
Being gentle with yourself and adjusting personal expectations, is something Russell emphasized in adjusting to the changes everyone is experiencing.
“This is a hard time, and to keep the expectations of yourself from pre-COVID. For instance, if your goal was, ‘I’m going to run 5 miles and read six books,’” Russell said. “It is OK to give yourself permission to scale that list a little bit. Recognize that this is a hard time and you are using a lot of mental and emotional energy right now just to maintain stability. It is OK to give yourself permission maybe not to achieve all of the to-do list you had planned for yourself. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself that room that, ‘You know, today is a day that I am really overwhelmed. Today I am not going to be citizen of the year, I’m just going to do my very best to take care of myself.”
Ledbetter said going back to the basics: sleeping, eating, drinking water, and exercising, cannot be underestimated while enduring this stressful time.
“If something is going to happen – they change the school plan again our stress level is going to spike,” Ledbetter said. “But if we haven’t eaten, had a drink of water, or have been sitting for six hours straight – our stress level could go to a 10 instead of an eight because we didn’t have water or breakfast. People are so tired of hearing, ‘Create a new routine for the new normal.’ But that guidance cannot be underestimated because we really do make ourselves vulnerable to stressful circumstances when we don’t attend to the basics.”
Miller encourages everyone to have one phone number that can always be used whether it be a family member, friend, or a crisis hotline.
“You should be able to have that when nothing else is working – you’ve tried every tool in your tool box, you’ve tried every app,” Miller said. “When it’s just too much for you, you have to have a number available to call. I would love if it was on everyone’s fridge in the house. Like, ‘This is the number I call either the Colorado Crisis line or the National Suicide Hotline.’”
Knowing it is OK to ask for help, Russell said, is critical. Adding, it is not only OK, but is better to ask for the help you need before the situation turns into a crisis.
“It actually takes more strength to reach out and say, ‘I’m just not here anymore and I need somebody else to hold me in this process,’” Russell added.
Miller noted her experience working in crisis services, noting she questions why help is not provided prior to the escalated situation.
“Sometimes the nursing homes will let us in,” Miller said. “They may not let the therapist come in that used to go see them once a week, but they will let crisis (professionals) in when the client is in crisis. Which, I’m glad they let us come in, but there’s a part of me that says, ‘We’re waiting until we get into a crisis. Why can’t we be doing more for them before they get to that crisis level?’
“I’ve been tracking some data, and while we may see less people in crisis – by the time we are called in, they are much more acute than if they would have called or done something earlier on. People don’t ask for help until it gets so bad, or sometimes it’s too late to ask for help when it’s OK to just ask for help early on, and then we can find creative ways to get you that socialization again.”
Ledbetter said that part of the difficulty in this situation is that the population has acclimated to a higher baseline level of stress. She added, at that new baseline, everyone is a little less regulated than they were prior to the coronavirus outbreak, so jumping into a more intense crisis is likely.
Adjusting to the higher levels of stress, especially for long periods of time may result in an even greater health crisis in the coming years.
Prolonged or constant stress can contribute to physical health issues including a higher risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
With the available information about the effects of toxic stress, Ledbetter said, health experts can draw on that information and teach people how to engage in basic survival strategies that are intended to counteract the effects of that stress.
“We have a lot of information on toxic and prolonged stress in the context of other types of factors, but also in the context of what is referred to as adverse childhood experience,” Ledbetter said. “The woman who spearheaded that, talks about treating adults who had exposure to toxic stress, and it’s an inelegant not very sexy response. Which is, you need to eat, you need to sleep, you need to exercise, and you need to have therapy and mindfulness.
“We can really draw upon the work that has been done around the effects of toxic stress. The reason that woman did this research was because she was a physician who was seeing the physical effects of all the toxic stress events for people. (The pandemic) is going to affect physical health, and it is going to exacerbate conditions over the course of the next number of years.”
Even with the technology that is temporarily distracting the population from the realities they may be trying to escape, Russell said there is nothing like basic human contact.
“With all the awesome technology and the different ways we have tried to be creative in connecting people, there is still no substitution for a good hug or quality contact with someone you care a lot about,” Russell said. “We all need physical affection and touch as much as we need emotional impact and conversation. Everybody is just struggling a little bit more and being isolated like this increases our anxiety. Any of us who are prone to anxiety or have anxious tendencies – it’s just increasing that capacity because we have avoided everything for so long, and that trains our brain to respond to an avoidance pattern.”
Russell said as the nation begins to move into a sense of regularity, it is important to understand that feeling anxious is normal.
“That doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, it doesn’t mean that you are broken, or that you’re going crazy. It just means that you are experiencing anxiety because this is a difficult time,” Russell said.“It’s understandable that people are resorting to those coping mechanisms that may be less healthy for them,” Russell said. “That’s why Health Solutions is around to say, ‘Hey, I have options for you.’ It’s not a judgment, we understand how we got here, and we just want to help you find strength in yourself so that you can live a life in which you are proud of.”
Chieftain reporter Alexis Smith can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @smith_alexis27. Help support local journalism with a subscription to the Chieftain at chieftain.com/subscribenow.