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Maintaining your mental health just as important as physical health during coronavirus outbreak

There's a lot of uncertainty. But maintaining your wits is key to surmounting anxiety.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — We've heard over and over to wash our hands, cough into our sleeves, maintain social distancing, and to take steps to keep our bodies — and those of others — healthy amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

But what about our minds?

Experts say maintaining your mental health is as important as your physical health in these times when anxiety has cast a real shadow on our lives. Whether you actually catch the virus or not, you're impacted by it.

High Anxiety

The disruption to everyday lives has been more widespread than the virus itself, and the speed at which things are changing can be taxing on anyone.

Whether it's concern over our health, our jobs, our kids out of school, the craziness at stores or the meltdown of our retirement savings.

At the same time normal means of escape from stress, like going to the gym or the movies, or to dinner with friends are off the table.

Even the diversion of watching professional sports is currently not an option.  

Moreover, the things we might be inclined to do to extend comfort, like giving someone a hug, or putting your arm around them, are being discouraged as well.

Part of the angst many are feeling is rooted in obsessing on things out of our our control instead of focusing on what we can, according to Ken Houseknecht, executive director of Mental Health Advocates of Western New York.

"If you love your dog, if you love music, if you love puttering with your plants in the house or in the yard, then you do those things. Then you will be in a position to help other people," he said.

Keeping Your Wits About You

Houseknecht used the analogy of what airline passengers have been accustomed to hearing from flight attendants, should the oxygen mask drop mid flight.

"They tell you in case of an emergency put on your own mask first. You have to take care of yourself, so make taking care of yourself a priority," said Houseknecht. "If you have a leadership role in an organization and if you've got responsibility for other human beings, you need to care first for the caregiver."

While the current tribulations being experienced amid the virus outbreak may be enough to fray the nerves of anyone, Houseknecht noted that for many Americans already dealing with anxiety, "this is like a brush fire."  

"Let's give each other a little more latitude right now," he said. "Everyone is a little bit at wits end. Let's be a little more patient with each other and a little bit more tolerant with each other."

That last point may be most important, as nerves fray and we start sniping at one another, damaging relationships with even those we may closest to.

While social media is a good way of staying in touch while exercising social distancing, as well as keeping informed, it can be a source of increased anxiety and conflict. Therefore, if all becomes too overwhelming, Houseknecht says you shouldn't be afraid to take a break from it.   

"You will not stay emotionally healthy if you are constantly reviewing all the things you can't do and all the things that you've lost or all the things that are scary to you," said Houseknecht. "I'm not saying to put your head in the sand and avoid the reality of what's happening... but don't fixate on all of those things without counterbalancing with a long, hard, creative look at all the good things that are happening. All the things you still can do. And if you need help, get help. It's still available to you."

In addition, Houseknecht says maintaining good mental health inexorably linked to maintaining your physical health, which is why it is important to eat right, get enough sleep, and exercise.

Need Help?

Visit the website of Mental Health Advocates of Western New York here.

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