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Utah Psychological Association President On How To Mentally Cope During A Pandemic

Drawing of a man sitting down hugging his knees
Utah Psychological Association President Dr. Kirt Cundick gives tips on managing anxiety and stress during a pandemic.

Between a global pandemic and earthquakes, the times we live in can feel overwhelming. Social distancing is hard — maybe mentally most of all. KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Utah Psychological Association President Dr. Kirt Cundick from his practice in Richfield. They talked about what people can do to best manage stress and anxiety.Caroline Ballard: What are mental health professionals doing to serve their clients?

Kirt Cundick: We're canceling appointments or rescheduling down the road for people that aren't in really urgent need. But we're still leaving the option for me to see people here in the clinic if they're in an urgent or emergent situation.

CB: What about people who rely on support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, other anonymous groups, grief support groups? How can they best navigate this time of isolation?

KC: Social media, for whatever downsides it has, certainly has upsides. And there's been a lot of information being disseminated right now about people that are using distance technology to continue doing these sorts of things. 

That's true for therapists also. A lot of therapists are now using distance technologies and, failing that, making phone calls.

CB: Do you have some tips for people on managing anxiety and stress during this time? 

KC: I think in any crisis that focusing first on immediate and proximal concerns is always a good idea. Make sure that you're focused on things that you can do something about. 

In terms of managing stress, there's two general strategies. One of them involves structuring, because ambiguity is anxiety provoking. So sitting down, making lists, figuring out what you can do and what you can't do. Making sure that you're focusing on things that are of immediate concern. 

And also distraction sometimes. Sometimes you can't structure things and redirecting your attention to something else for a while gives you an opportunity to give your sympathetic nervous system a little bit of a break. Utilizing relaxation strategies or other emotional grounding strategies is a good idea. The gold standard is probably meditation or yoga or something like that, although exercise is also a very good strategy. 

Anxiety is a self-amplifying cycle. It is a positive feedback loop, and the strategy for dealing with positive feedback loops is that you have to focus intensely on something else. My personal favorite is singing. If I'm singing along with something, then I am focused on the words. I'm focused on whether or not I'm on pitch. Occasionally, I'm self conscious about whether or not anybody else can hear me. But that’s an immersive activity, and immersive activities are anxiety relieving.

CB: We are now looking at the possibility of this situation extending, potentially, for months where we're advised not to gather in large groups. Things may be canceled, school may be canceled. As this progresses, do you have any concerns about the length of this?

KC: Oh, sure. When you're in acute distress, you often enter a crisis mode and you become a little bit disconnected from your feelings as you're dealing with immediate concerns. Which is great, except that you really will probably only carry that for so long, and those anxieties that you haven't really been dealing with have a tendency to come up. 

There is going to be a kind of public or collective coping process at work where people are dealing with the more immediate concerns. But at some point the most immediate concern is going to become continuing isolation probably.

CB: This is certainly a heavy time for a lot of people. But is there a potential silver lining where people might be more willing to speak about their mental state or be a little bit more open about their mental health?

KC: I think absolutely that there are potential upsides to this. In the general sense, I think that it's human nature to not really appreciate the things that we have. And I think that the risk of losing them certainly redirects your attention to appreciating the things that you have that are the most important to you. I think it helps you balance your priorities. 

It's interesting to me that many of the clients that I am seeing here that have had the most significant mental health disruptions seem to be relatively unfazed by what's going on. And it's not that they're ignoring it. I just think they have a different perspective on things, where they've had to confront these sorts of questions before. And so I think you could argue that there's a silver lining there for them.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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