SUNY institute offers training to cope with coronavirus stress and disruption

Dr. Amy Nitza, the director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at SUNY New Paltz. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Though it may now feel like a lifetime, it was only six weeks ago that we profiled Dr. Amy Nitza, director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at SUNY New Paltz. At the time, the psychotherapist was about to head off to Puerto Rico to “train the trainers” to help local people deal with the emotional stress precipitated by an earthquake, following the previous devastation of Hurricane Maria.

Now Dr. Nitza must attend to a disaster that’s hitting right at home: the COVID-19 pandemic. This past week she has been conducting training sessions for local officials and college leadership (remotely, we presume) in best practices for helping citizens deal with the psychological effects of this health emergency and the self-isolation strategies required to slow and dampen its spread among vulnerable populations while our health systems gear up to provide care. Here’s a capsule description of the training content:

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“Infectious disease outbreaks cause great uncertainty and stress in addition to their physical impact. This is particularly salient in the current COVID-19 pandemic where unprecedented social distancing measures are directly impacting the entire population, elevating anxiety and, for some, causing mistrust in authorities. This training will include a brief overview of typical stress reactions in response to uncertainty, followed by the key elements of Psychological First Aid that managers and others in positions of authority can use to address anxiety, stress and mistrust in the various populations they supervise, represent or otherwise interact with.”

Indeed, different people will have very different ideas about which people in positions of authority most deserve the public’s mistrust in these challenging times. But we can probably all agree that an angry crowd of citizens converging on Town Hall armed with torches and pitchforks isn’t going to help the situation one bit. However, Psychological First Aid is a skillset that may serve our leaders well to acquire for this and future emergencies.

For the rank and file, the Institute for Disaster Mental Health has published a handy list of Tips for Community Members, subtitled COVID-19: Managing Stress in this Anxious Time. Here’s the summary section:

  1. Do what you can to take charge of your anxiety by breaking your concerns down into manageable chunks.
  2. Change what you can, and work on strategies for accepting and coping with what you can’t.
  3. Limit your media exposure so you’re not dwelling on the situation.
  4. Stay connected, through whatever means are available, to the people that are important to you.
  5. Above all, remember what stress management strategies work for you, and actually use them regularly to get through this challenging outbreak.

The document begins with the observation that “Infectious disease outbreaks are one of the most distressing forms of disaster to deal with psychologically because of the uncertainty they cause. With more typical disasters we know for sure whether we’ve been personally impacted, and while the physical and emotional recovery processes can be lengthy and difficult, at least we can be confident that the worst is over once the event ends. Disease outbreaks don’t have that kind of clear time boundary. This leaves us in an ongoing state of feeling at risk, which is not the kind of acute stressor our ‘fight or flight’ system evolved to deal with effectively.”

It goes on to spell out simple exercises for managing your stress, including making a list of what’s worrying you about the pandemic, evaluating which threats are most or least likely to affect you personally and classifying them by whether they’re factors you can or cannot control. That makes it easier to move forward with practical steps to mitigate the controllable items. Another recommendation is to pick only one or two trusted sources for news about the pandemic (top recommendation: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov) and limit yourself to checking them only once a day, instead of stressing out over every conspiracy theory and rumor being promulgated by dubious sources on social media.

You can download the entire tip sheet online at https://t.co/ygcbytR3Xq?amp=1.

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