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Coronavirus in Austin: Mental Health Strategies During Crisis

Life during a pandemic can be overwhelming. Karen Ranus is here to help with these tips and practices

For Karen Ranus, mental health is about the power of human connection.

After nearly losing a daughter to suicide nine years ago, Ranus struggled to find support until she discovered a family course through the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). Taught by NAMI-trained family members of those living with mental illness, the program provided a powerful healing environment by allowing people to share their experiences.

“ there’s a face attached to all those statistics, it becomes real,” Ranus says of learning that personal stories can be as – or more – effective as data in changing hearts and minds about mental illness.

Nine years later, Ranus is now an executive director at NAMI, currently helping its Central Texas division navigate a global pandemic. When personal interaction is more important than ever, her top priority is encouraging others to stay physically distanced, but socially connected.

Executive Director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, Karen Ranus.

In March, NAMI worked to quickly transfer its classes and resources to a digital setting for people managing mental health journeys. Now, the nonprofit is flourishing with online classes, webinars and new resources including prompts for addressing mental health, Mind Matters at Home and coronavirus resources, featuring a list of online support groups and NAMI programs.

Despite shelter-in-place orders and social distancing practices, the coronavirus pandemic shows no signs of slowing down this summer as cases continue to rise across Texas. Not only has the pandemic endangered the physical health of Austinites, but their mental health is at risk as well. The economic downturn that has taken its toll on many Austin businesses, including our dynamic restaurant industry, only adds to the fear and stress people are experiencing.

To address all of this, Ranus has shared eight ways to deal with anxiety, grief and vulnerability to protect our emotional well-being during a crisis. For many, these tips and practices are just as important as the steps we take to prevent the spread of COVID-19, like wearing a mask and frequently washing hands. Here’s what Ranus suggests for cultivating mental wellness:

1. Stick to reliable sources but limit media consumption

“I think we have to be careful when it comes to media consumption, recognizing how much media we’re consuming,” Ranus says. “Constant consumption of news can increase your anxiety and your stress. So really limit that. I’m really challenging people to pick and choose. I get the newspaper every day, I read the newspaper and I watch half an hour of news max, every day, and then that’s it. Then I shut it off because it’s too much for me.”

2. Schedule time to worry

“People need to recognize is that we’re all having this experience of collective grief, anxiety, stress and worry,” Ranus says. “Just a few weeks ago, I didn’t know anyone who’d been impacted by COVID, and now I know several people, and I think it makes it more real. That’s the other thing people ought to consider doing; schedule time to worry … otherwise, that can be all-consuming if throughout the day you’re constantly worrying about things. Often, the things that we worry about are things that we don’t have control over.”

“I encourage people to make a list. What’s the thing that you’re worried about? Make that list, and you can do any number of things with that. Do you take that list away? Do you throw it in the trash? Maybe there’s a ritual that you can do, when you say, ‘Okay, I’ve named it all. I’ve thought about all those things, and I’m going to put that away now, and I’m not going to let myself worry about it all day long.’ ”

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3. Acknowledge anxiety and grief

“We’ve been talking a lot in our organization about this notion of grief, because so often when we think about grief, we really do think about that only in the sense of loss of life,” Ranus says.  “And certainly, we’re seeing some of that happen and people impacted by that. But it’s important to recognize that grief is also about small things .”

4. Create a safe place to express yourself

“Create a safe space to express your grief,” she says. “And again, that’s a real simple thing. I think families can do it. I think workplaces can do it, even if they’re working remotely by acknowledging these are all difficult times. We’re all working in ways that we’re not accustomed to.”

“It can be really empowering just to say, ‘It’s hard.’ Instead of pretending like everything’s okay, a lot of us tend to say, ‘I’m okay,’ or, ‘It’s fine.’ We feel foolish about the way that we feel, and we shouldn’t, because these are normal responses to a very difficult and trying situation that we’re all in. And I think that’s the gift as well – it is this universal global collective experience that we’re having. So, everyone really does get it, so being able just to name it, I think, can be helpful.”

5. Recognize you might need professional help

“My experience of sitting and talking to my daughter or my husband or a coworker is completely different than the experience that I have in a therapeutic session,” Ranus says. “Sitting with my therapist allows me to have a different kind of conversation. It’s important to recognize that sometimes our spouses, partners, girlfriends, coworkers can’t be our therapists. The value of a therapist is that there’s someone who’s not only listening and listening in that safe space, but who also gives you constructive feedback, some guidance and, a lot of times, a different perspective. One that’s not linked emotionally like it can be when you’re talking to a husband or whoever.”

6. Keep physical – not social – distance from others

“Physical distancing instead of social distance – that’s the language we developed back in March when all of this started,” Ranus says. “ important that we change the language and talk about ‘physical distancing’ because we are by our nature social beings. We long and need to be connected. That has become one of the things that have been a real struggle point for most people, that sense of feeling like I’m disconnected from people … So, I think not social distance, but rather physical distance and social connection are what we need.”

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7. Maintain good habits

“Try to maintain good habits, and I think it’s hard for any of us who are now working from home,” Ranus says. “You’re not in the same kind of mode that you were in. But eating right, exercising, getting that physical activity – it’s tough now with the heat for us in Texas. This morning I made sure to get up extra early so I could get out and then sleep. It’s also so important that we are getting enough sleep.”

8. The power of gratitude

“We talked about listening and making lists of the things you worry about. But equally, paying attention to the things that you’re grateful for can be a useful tool to help us be well during this time,” Ranus says. “I keep a gratitude jar where I write down some things that I’m grateful for and drop it in there. There’s a study that was done not too long ago that showed that people who keep a real simple journal by their bedside and jot down what they’re grateful for at the end of the day before they go to sleep, they sleep better.”