The contents of this post are for informational purposes only and are not considered medical advice.
As a psychiatrist, I am privy to the power of people’s stories. From the global to the local, I have had the privilege of exploring in-depth people’s lives across cultures and time. What I’ve learned is that when patients present to clinicians, it’s not just about their symptoms. It’s about their symptoms in the context of their entire lives—biological, spiritual, social, cognitive, and emotional.
When COVID-19 hit, and people were required to shelter in place and disrupt routines, the social fabric that supports all of us started to fall away. I quickly became worried about the mental health fall-out. I was concerned that mental health issues would be submerged—hidden and no longer accessible in this time of disconnection from one another.
So I went into my version of “crisis mode.” This involved a paradoxical calming of my nervous system—a reigning in of the way I had been working and a complete reorganization of my priorities both professional and personal. To understand why I had this response requires you to know something about me: I am most calm when things are chaotic around me. I can make sense out of a complicated conundrum pretty quickly, especially when the stakes are high. This ability allows me to think calmly and systematically when running a psychiatric ER in the South Bronx, or when working in post-conflict settings.
I am all too aware from my work in global post-conflict settings that in times of large-scale trauma, a diverse range of mental health effects starts to emerge across a population spanning from psychological distress and feelings of helplessness to anxiety and depression to acute and post-traumatic stress. Those with mental illness and substance use disorders often see a worsening of symptoms, while others find themselves grappling with loss of life and severe stress on the frontlines, and still others experience economic despair and job loss. All of these things are risk factors for mental health.
I felt it was my duty and obligation to pay attention to the way our lives were changing and to the potential for collective healing through storytelling—a way to open up the hidden aspects of our internal lives from a mental health angle.
Using podcast skills that I had acquired during the past year for a production that was put on hold due to COVID-19, I quickly pivoted and started an interview series called “Coping with COVID-19 by Dr. Allie.”
My goal was twofold:
1. To create a safe space for people to share their stories as they relate to social determinants of mental health—including livelihood, family, income, economic hardship, health, and relationships—so that others can understand that they are not alone in this experience.
2. To start to memorialize and create a historical record of what we are going through from a psychological lens.
When I began to reach out to potential guests for interviews, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for the podcast and the level of interest. In fact, I had so much content that I was putting out five episodes per week, which required me to edit each night after my kids were in bed. To me, this reinforced the idea that there is deep value for people to speak their minds, to be heard, and to tell their stories.
From Michael Kouly who speaks on truth, love, and principles of leadership in Episode 12, to Dr. Nick Caputo on the frontlines in the South Bronx in Episode 2 to Andrea Syrtash the fearless founder of pregnantish.com who offers perspectives on family building and fertility challenges in the time of COVID, it was the guests on the series who moved me the most. I was inspired on a daily basis by who they were; what role they played in society; and their stories of strength, adaptability, and resilience as they navigated the COVID-19 landscape. It was a gift to be socially and intrinsically connected in this way.
As I reflect on the themes that came up, here are some of the few with regard to coping and resilience that emerged:
There is resilience within the human spirit that demonstrates that we are destined to focus on our survival.
Humans are adaptable and flexible creatures. If we are traveling down a path and we see blockades up ahead, we adapt and find plans B, C, and D—some of us with greater agility than others.
Hope, optimism, ambition, and in some cases denial are important psychological forces that propel us forward in times of adversity.
Humans pivot when they need to and, more importantly, they innovate to rise above challenges.
Those who have lived through previous wars, traumas, and complex emergencies understand that a phenomenon such as COVID-19 is not so abnormal and that “this too shall pass.”
We know that most people will be resilient in times of crisis and trauma. Yet even through their resilience, some will be deeply affected. Still, I was surprised by the powerful sense of optimism and strength that came through in almost every interview. It has been an honor to create and host this series. I am now in a period of reflection for the next iteration of episodes to come as COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve alongside us.
Here are some tips for you to bolster your mental health and wellbeing under the current conditions and beyond.
We don’t know when the pandemic will subside and when life will be restored back to normal. And this can be anxiety-provoking for so many. So within the current conditions, focus on your wellbeing and things that we know can enhance your mental health.
Engage in things that are important to you. Find ways to help others who are struggling. Connect with previous hobbies and pursuits that used to bring you pleasure but have fallen to the wayside.
Minimize alcohol, drug use, caffeine, and tobacco products. Maximize meditation, nature, and setting aside time to do nothing. Set boundaries on things that are making you unhappy.
We know that social support is protective for mental health. Find and continue to invest in your COVID bubble. Have deeper engagements and conversations. Call up old friends and loved ones when you have down time. Parents, lean on other parents!
Speak out loud how you are feeling to someone else. Write in your journal. Maintain awareness. Ask people in your inner circle how they are feeling. Check in often with your loved ones. Notice those who change, withdraw, or who do not appear like themselves and support them as you can.
And if you are still feeling overwhelmed, connect with a licensed behavioral health professional who can help guide you through what you are experiencing.
Sonali Sharma, MD, known to her friends and colleagues as Allie, is a board-certified adult psychiatrist. In addition to running her Manhattan private practice for over a decade and hosting two podcasts, Dr. Sharma has held various clinical positions in emergency psychiatry and student mental health at Columbia University’s health science campus, and she has supported the mental health of the homeless population across shelters in New York City.