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Feeling anxious? Depressed? Lonely? You're not alone. We asked two mental health experts how to cope.

With words such as pandemic, news reports detailing increasing coronavirus infections and deaths, and major disruptions to our daily lives, many Americans are feeling anxious.

The Day talked to two local mental health professionals about how to cope with anxiety, depression and loneliness at a time when we are being asked to limit contact with others and stay inside our homes, with uncertainty about when things will return to normal.

The unknown is often the hardest part for people, said Dr. Peter Morgan, chair of psychiatry at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. Morgan has encouraged his patients to try to focus on the things that are known and that they can control, rather than the things they can't. The unknowns can cause people to spend time worrying or thinking about what else they could do instead of using that time to do something productive or relax.  

"We've seen that with people stocking up on food and supplies at the grocery store," Morgan said. "Part of that is very important, very rational. On the other hand, part of it is saying, 'Well, I don't know so I'm going to try to be prepared for everything.' Then it creates more anxiety because other people are doing it, and then once other people do it, then it becomes a real concern, so now the stores don't have toilet paper or some food."

Morgan said it's important to find a balance between spending time for our preparedness and spending time taking care of ourselves. Keeping our hands clean, not touching our faces and maintaining social distance are important protection measures that can help keep us healthy. 

"If we do some things for preparation and worry, that buys us the right to relax and that could be pure relaxation or doing something you didn't have time for before, like exercising more regularly or pursuing a hobby," he said.

Keeping a routine despite the uncertainty also is important. Morgan advised people to wake up at the time they usually would and get enough sleep. Scaling back on caffeine is also a good idea, as is limiting our exposure to the news.

"That doesn't mean don't stay informed," Morgan said. "Decide when are your regular times to get informed."

In addition to picking set times to tune in to the news, he said people should try to eat meals around the same time each day.

Given gyms are closed, getting outside in a way that keeps social distance, doing exercises at home or in our neighborhoods are good alternatives to help us de-stress.

Things that we can do to promote our health, "that can create a good feeling back to your psyche that you're doing something," can be protective against anxiety and is just a good idea generally, Morgan said 

If you're a parent, the most important thing for your kids is that they see the people around them are OK. Try to focus on the positives, Morgan advised, like being able to spend more time together. Tell them that things are going to be like this for now, but it's OK, we'll make adjustments and one day things will be back to normal. But also be realistic about what we don't know, he said.

"We all have anxieties and we want to deal with those anxieties, but it's probably better not to share those with younger children in particular and only share as helpful for cooperation with older children," he said.

Young children will not remember the pandemic, he said, but they will remember if people around them were really stressed.

Jennifer Clark, owner of Inner Peace CT Wellness Center in Waterford, said she's seeing a lot of panic symptoms — almost like trauma responses — with her clients: heart racing, extreme worry about the uncertainty, their finances or a loved one getting sick, sleep disturbance, hyper vigilance, obsessing over whether they have the symptoms of the virus, feelings of hopelessness and despair.

For many, our flight, fight and freeze responses have been in overdrive. Breathing exercises, yoga practices and meditation can help to regulate our nervous systems, she said. Deep and slow breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety. Most people take 10 to 14 breaths every minute. Taking six breaths over the course of a minute can help reduce stress, Clark said, advising people, when doing this, to breathe in deeply from the diaphragm.

Worrying and obsessing isn't going to change the outcomes, she said. She advised people to create a structure and develop resiliency and a new system. 

"This is an opportunity to focus more on our health," such as eating better and getting more exercise, she said. Staying connected with friends and family virtually also is important to help with the isolation.

j.bergman@theday.com

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