By Patricia B. Mirasol

The National Center for Mental Health’s hotline has received an average of 876 calls per month between March to August this year, up from the pre-pandemic average of 350, said Dr. Rodney Boncajes, a psychiatrist at the said hospital, in a recent mental health forum organized by J&J Philippines, Inc. 

Individuals have been responding to coronavirus stress in different ways, including panic, anxiety, and distress. There has also been an increase in the number of web searches for depression while under quarantine. 

The biggest problem, according to Dr. Amadeo Alinea Jr., president of the Philippine Psychiatric Association (PPA), is that isolation due to the lockdown has been counterproductive, especially among those suffering from mental health issues. “This isolation is not what we encouraged prior to this pandemic. We wanted (these individuals) to interact and go back to mainstream society.” 

Addressing mental health challenges is a long-term journey, and an increase in awareness is key to decreasing the stigmatization around actively seeking help for it. Raghu Krishnan, J&J Philippines president and managing director, related several collaborations in Southeast Asia that aim to combat these challenges. Among these initiatives are Anino ng Kahapon, an indie film that decreases the stigma around schizophrenia and advocates for medication adherence. Another is the PESO (Patient’s Equity to Support “Out-of-pocket expense”) Value project that pushes for a pooling financial system to address the costs of treatment for mental health.

Part of the awareness drive is knowing where to get the appropriate intervention. Several hotlines offering mental health counseling are available to anyone who needs to talk things through. The PPA likewise launched Mind Matters, which offers free consultations for frontliners weighing against the mental strain of COVID-19’s demands. 

“It’s important not to pathologize everybody just because they feel depressed,” Dr. Alinea said, although those with symptoms that interfere with basic life functions such as working and socializing should seek professional help. 

A silver lining of the pandemic is that it has encouraged wholesome behaviorial changes. More and more people are turning to gardening as a way to cope. There has also been a growing demand to sustain healthier eating habits and self-care practices. 

“[Those experiencing quarantine fatigue] should practice self-kindness, avoid comparison, and take regular breaks,” advised Dr. Boncajes. He also suggested expressing one’s needs to avoid misunderstanding, and listening to others in the same boat to learn how others are coping. Finding a balance between online and physical activity, meanwhile, was recommended for children stuck at home.

There is no black and white for minimizing anxieties. Both doctors suggested finding enjoyable activities—whether they be related to nature, art, pets, or music—that can help effectively manage stress. Both also emphasized the importance of nurturing a good support network as a means of staving off anxiety.

SIDEBAR | The four D’s to help cope with anxiety

While it is always best to seek professional help for intense cases of anxiety, there are ways to manage everyday bouts of mental stress. Leanne Robers, psychologist and founder of She Loves Tech, a startup competition for women and tech, shared four D’s to cope with anxiety during “Mental Health of Tomorrow”, a workshop by coworking space WeWork on October 14.

Define the problem.
Clearly identifying the issue is the first step to addressing it. Sit and list down the biggest challenges in your life at the moment. Close your eyes and bring up their images in your head. Take note of what you are feeling, sensing, and thinking of while doing this activity.

Defuse emotions.
Bring down heightened emotions before they can start causing real harm. This can be done through calming activities such as meditation and prayer. Ms. Robers also recommends the butterfly hug, which uses bilateral stimulation or the rhythmic, alternate tapping of certain body parts “These are techniques that help us to integrate the emotional and the cognitive sides of our brain so that we can regulate our emotions better and use them to our advantage,” she said.

While doing the butterfly hug, imagine a real or imaginary place that brings you calm and joy. Clearly envision the sights, smells, and other sensations in that place. If negative memories or feelings come up, stop tapping, and resume only when they go away.

Focus is important in making the exercise effective. Clear your mind and space of any distractions. If you lose focus, note first if your anxiety levels went down and if yes, by how much. Then resume the activity.

Discern your thoughts.
Every person is plagued by what Ms. Robers calls ANTs, or automatic, negative thoughts. These are pervasive reactions or habits that reinforce ideas such as “I’m not good enough,” or “I failed and so I’m always going to fail”.

Develop an awareness of your ANTs in order to stop them just as soon as they start creeping up. Turn them instead into PETs, or positive, empowering thoughts. For example, if you didn’t do well in a certain project, think about the lessons and connections that you gained along the way.

“When we know what our ANTs are and [are] able to turn them into PETs, can we then start to say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to let this anxiety rule over me. I am going to start being and taking a positive and empowered stance on this,’” said Ms. Robers.

Develop yourself.
People often have a tendency to be held back by regrets. Envision the kind of person that you want to be instead. If you have a fear of public speaking, imagine yourself standing and speaking onstage. Imagine, too, how you want to look and feel. Try pairing this activity with bilateral stimulation to reinforce the positive images and feelings.

“You can choose the emotions that you seek to experience when you begin to envisage this future,” said Ms. Robers. — Mariel Alison L. Aguinaldo