Kim Shaffer, LCPC, Counseling Services LLC

2025 Glenwood Avenue
Hermon ME 04401
(207) 991-5818

Mental Health During Covid19

In what ways is the current moment --between the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders -- more exacting on mental health?

These days, the feeling of uncertainty is weighing on us all. People are understandably feeling anxious, worried, and concerned about the coronavirus. Fear for our health and the health of our loved ones, neighbors, and fellow humans around the world is justified. Additionally, the stress experienced as a result of unemployment, loss of social supports, and an extended stay at home is challenging our mental wellbeing.

Anxiety is normal right now, but when it starts disrupting your ability to manage daily life or sleep, you need to learn new strategies to take care of yourself.

What are some common reactions to this stress?

Common physiological responses to stress may include tense muscles, clenched jaw, difficulty sleeping, upset stomach, low energy, and feeling "foggy". Behavioral responses to stress may include compulsively watching the news, blaming others, increased dependence on alcohol or other substances, spreading conspiracy theories, and ignoring public health recommendations. Cognitive responses to stress may include difficulty sustaining focus, forgetfulness. Emotional responses may include sadness, crying, irritability, anger, frustration, and fear. All of these responses are normal so long as they don't take over or limit your ability to function overall.

Healthy functioning is not the absence of stress. Healthy functioning is the ability to recognize signs of stress and the ability to behave in ways that help us feel better. This may include reducing media exposure, expressing (not suppressing) emotions (it's okay to cry!), and staying active (hobbies like cooking, gardening, and exercise, etc.)

Symptoms to watch for include feelings of hopelessness, intense emotions that are hard to manage, impaired daily function, anxiety that leaves you feeling out of control or hypervigilant. If you experience these symptoms, please let me know.

In your experience, do certain groups of people -- at-risk individuals, for example, or perhaps children -- react more strongly to the stress of the coronavirus?

People who already suffer from pre-existing medical conditions or have existing mental health issues like depression and anxiety are most vulnerable to additional stress during this time. It's also important to note that people in unsafe and unhealthy living situations with reduced ability to remove themselves from harm are also more at-risk at this time. These may include victims of violence in the household, people who depend on social services that may have been interrupted, and those in the LGBTQ+ community who are in non-affirming environments. Please refer to the resources list.

What are your tips for coping with the stress of the coronavirus? 

Self-care is the effort we make to know and support ourselves and then living that awareness out in the world. Self-care includes doing the work of healing from unprocessed traumas or grief so that you are not stuck living in your past and learning how to establish and maintain appropriate boundaries in order to have healthy, functional relationships.

However, during this pandemic it is important to recognize that self-care begins with ensuring that your basic needs are met: eating well, getting enough sleep, and spending time outside to the extent that it's safe and possible. We are so fortunate here in Maine to be able to be outside while respecting six-foot distancing.

To reduce your stress levels, one of the most important things you can do is to calm your nervous system. Focusing on your breath helps. The following tool is one I use often with clients:

Sit in a comfortable position. Relax your eyes close and rest your hands on your legs or in whatever way feels comfortable to you. Slowly begin taking a deep breath in, pushing your lower abdomen out with air, bringing oxygen to the bottom of your lungs. As you breathe in, notice your belly expanding. On your exhale, release your breath slowly (for a few counts longer than your inhale). Breathe in and breath out slowly, for 6-10 mindful breaths, allowing your body to relax and your mind to become calm. And finally, when you're ready, come back to the room and notice how you feel. If you feel better, practice this as throughout your day and before bed.

More generally, when coping with stress from the coronavirus, seek support by reaching out to friends or healthcare provider and stay up-todate on managing any medications with medical providers.

Maine has lifted most of the restrictions. The CDC also says that coming out of quarantine will come with its own mix of emotions. Recommendation for people dealing with the fear, guilt, or anger associated with restrictions being lifted is a follows:

The truth, exposed by the coronavirus, is that our lives are always changing and that massive changes can occur within moments, let alone days and weeks. This is a time of accelerated change on a mass scale and the opportunity to do things better.

Humans are resilient and we are capable of adapting to adversity. Building resilience is like strengthening a muscle; it requires time and dedication. Developing resilience is a process of strengthening connection, learning to cope with stress, adjusting your thought process, fostering physical wellness. As we open up and come out of quarantine, we are going to need to care for the vulnerabilities in our communities and the people who have suffered tremendously during this time. Try to be compassionate and remember the way you've dealt with the last several months isn't necessarily how your partner, children, neighbors, or strangers have dealt with it. It is okay to feel fear, guilt, and anger. It is not okay to take those feelings out on other people.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: If you're feeling suicidal, please call
1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799 - SAFE

Walking While Talking

I began walking while talking with clients as an opportunity to get some fresh air....need I say more? Over the course of my career, I have worked in wilderness therapy, alternative dispute resolution and education. Based on these experiences and the various settings in which I practice, I have observed the benefits of physical movement and time spent in the outdoors on overall well-being. Getting our blood and conversation flowing as well as being out in nature are all catalysts for feeling our best.

Health and well-being are the foundations of my personal life practice, and the focus of my ongoing growth and learning. I do not ask clients to engage in treatment modalities I do not practice myself. I continually collaborate with other professionals in the health and wellness communities around me.

The exploration of the mind-body connection and various healing modalities within both my personal and professional life have provided me with an in-depth understanding of the interplay between physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health and happiness.

The idea comes from somatic based therapeutic practices that recognize that we are creatures of movement. Our brains, circulatory, hormonal, and nervous systems rely on movement to function optimally. The idea of purposeful movement is as old as our human tendency to overthink things. The integration of our physical, emotional and spiritual experience is essential for cultivating resilience. A key part of the human experience is learning to cope with the adversity of imperfection, dis-ease, grief, and uncertainty. Therefore, exploring physical movement enables us to observe our mental state with greater clarity.

My practice is pretty fluid, and walking is one options for my clients on weather any days. Sometimes there are benefits to making a cup of tea and sitting still. At other times, it is helpful to draw or write, which is best done in my office. Research supports the use of exercise to reduce stress, improve sleep, and to support overall mood management. Movement supports our well-being by releasing endorphins leading to improved moods. Exercise is often part of self-care or self-soothing skills that I recommend to my clients. The opportunity to walk or swim together helps to reinforce and integrate in-session and outside-of-session behavior.

Time spent outside is another incredible benefit of this practice. Exposure to the elements grounds us. The use of our senses reconnects us with our creativity and resiliency. Being surrounded by the rugged beauty of Maine provides us with ample opportunity to explore what is going on within us.

Some clients are more comfortable talking while walking side-by-side or swimming than they would be sitting in a chair across from me. While there is transformative power in being uncomfortable, as you might experience in a backwoods wilderness program, my practice maintains my client's comfort. I invite my client to set the pace.

Walk-Talk therapy or swimming is a mindfulness practices that encourages steady breathing, relieves physical tension, and improves circulation. Mental benefits of this practice include improved brain health, stress reduction, and a decreased intensity of negative thought patterns. In all of these ways we see that therapy is enhanced when we are moving outside.

Not, all people choose to walk or swim while talking. Some clients work with me for a while before choosing to explore this option, while others seek me out specifically for this treatment modality.

Clients of all ages utilize this form of therapy. Teens and young adults dealing with ADHD or anxiety use physical movement to balance mental activity. They express increased insight and decreased feelings of restlessness. Parents of young children, with their child in a backpack or stroller, find an opportunity for self-care that otherwise seems improbable. Individuals dealing with trauma or depression benefit from the bilateral movement. Clients of all ages who live with insomnia and body-image issues are supported by this therapy.

Initial meetings with clients take place in my office to briefly complete intake paperwork and an assessment. Otherwise, I tend to write my notes after each session and I accept payment through a credit card, so there is very little in my office on which I rely. That said, I have a beautiful space to offer such treatment meditation.

With regard to confidentiality, I discuss with my clients pausing conversation until we are out of earshot of other people. I find my strong sense of professional and ethical boundaries are central in helping my clients feel safe. This is the foundation of our work together.

I respond to the opportunities and challenges of each season as they arise. This aspect of my practice reflects the work I do in session with my clients to promote flexibility in response to change. This flexibility is a skill that promotes resilience. Walking on icy and snow-covered sidewalks can be a challenge during the winter months. However, there are options that make it more feasible. One opportunity is cross-country skiing and incorporating winter movement into my practice is of interest to me. Winter is a particularly difficult time for my clients, and I see the need to be creative in how I adapt my practice to best support them. It is up to me as the practitioner to be creative and flexible enough in my practice to accommodate these options.

One of the my favorite quotes by Pema Choodron “True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”