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Coping with stress: Pandemic impacts people in different ways

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The coronavirus pandemic has put people into communal grief.

“We’ve all lost something due to COVID-19,” said Pam Schallhorn, University of Illinois Extension Region 2 community and economic development specialist.

“Small business owners have been forced to shut down, unemployment has increased, farmers are dealing with uncertain crop prices and many people are in self isolation,” Schallhorn said during a Recognizing and Managing Stress webinar organized by U of I Extension.

“These financial or social stressors have the potential of increasing levels of depression and suicide,” she said. “Stress can affect anyone at anytime.”

According to research, one in five people is experiencing a mental health issue, Schallhorn said.

“Generally rural communities are the hardest hit because of their limited access to mental health professionals to be able to recognize stress or develop an action plan for dealing with stress,” she said.

Dealing with stress is different for everyone.

“Understanding how stress affects us and knowing how to recognize signs of depression and the potential for suicide are important skills to have as we work through these troubled times,” Schallhorn said.

“Two people can have the same stressor and each will be affected differently,” she said. “The way we deal with it is different and how it affects us is different.”

Since rural communities often do not have access to good mental health care, Schallhorn said, community members should be looking for signs of stress in ourselves and others, as well as signs of depression and suicide not only in farmers, but small business owners and children.

“There are two primary ways to cope with stress — problem focused coping and emotion focused coping,” Schallhorn said.

“Many of you may have seen this in the last couple of months as we’ve been going through COVID-19, people are trying to solve a problem and our first reaction is we want to remove the source of the stress,” she said. “The problem is if a situation can’t be controlled, this doesn’t work well.”

For emotion focused coping, people try to reduce or eliminate emotional distress associated with the stressful situation.

“There’s a difference between the way optimists and pessimists cope with stress,” Schallhorn said. “Optimists have a better opportunity to deal with stress and they reach acceptance quicker.”

When coping mechanisms are used incorrectly, Schallhorn said, it can lead to drug abuse, domestic violence, obesity, alcoholism and suicide.

“Non-constructive emotion focused coping mechanisms are denial, distancing, fantasizing, self blame, self isolation, increased consumption of alcohol, excessive drug use, over eating or aggressive behavior,” she said.

Not only should adults find ways to cope with stress, but they should also consider teaching coping mechanisms to children.

“If we can learn as children to better deal with stress, it won’t be so difficult as adults,” Schallhorn said.

The first step for anyone who has thoughts of suicide, death or dying is to find a mental health provider in the community, Schallhorn said.

“Or, if you notice people who seem to be depressed or might attempt suicide, encourage them to go to a mental health provider,” Schallhorn said.

“Finding social support is really critical because we have a lot of people self isolating and this can create a lot of stress and loneliness,” she said. “Say you have a loss of a loved one, find a group for grief.”

Empathy and compassion are two different things, Schallhorn said.

“Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another person and compassion is doing something about it and making the decision to help,” she said. “This is a conscious decision and you need to know if you are strong enough, have enough time and the skills to do this.”

Giving someone empathy may simply require active listing.

“Active listening requires being present while encouraging the person you are interacting with to talk about themselves,” Schallhorn said. “Ask open-ended questions, summarize the situation, restate what you heard the person say and do not try to solved the problem because it may make them more frustrated.”

People who are thinking about suicide may say something like “I don’t want to live anymore” or I’m thinking about suicide.”

“But it’s generally not that direct,” Schallhorn said.

If it seems like someone is thinking about suicide, Schallhorn said, ask them directly about it.

“This does not increase the risk of suicide and it may provide the person with a sense of relief,” Schallhorn said.

“If that person says yes, do not leave that person alone,” she said. “Be prepared with a list of resources on your phone and give options for the next step such as calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.”

Other options include calling 911 for a welfare check, calling a family member or friend, or taking the person to a local hospital or mental health provider.

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