LA GRANDE — While Gov. Kate Brown's "stay home, save lives" order is necessary, isolation can make it difficult to maintain good mental health.

"Self-isolation and quarantine are both very hard on most people's mental health, because it's like cabin fever with no end in sight, (plus) trying to work from home and be a good parent and everything else long distance," said Luke Matteucci, a licensed counselor at Life Reformation Counseling in La Grande. "All the normal ways in which people function are being challenged."

Effects of isolation

Meegan Harp is a licensed marriage and family therapist at Still Waters Counseling Services in La Grande. She said isolation can increase the effects of conditions such as depression, suicidal ideation and anxiety.

"We may find ourselves feeling anxious, depressed and hyper aware of our attachment to others, almost to the point of paranoia," Harp said. "People who may not have noticed symptoms of depression and anxiety before the quarantine may now be feeling the strain from lack of connection and lack of physical touch."

Physical touch plays a primary role in our development and physical and mental well-being at all ages, according to Harp, but getting it during quarantine, particularly if you are living alone, is not always possible. This lack of connection can cause anxiety and heighten feelings of loneliness.

"When we isolate from others we tend to focus more on our own thoughts, stresses and challenges," said Aaron Grigg, mental health coordinator at the Center for Human Development Inc., La Grande. "Isolation can naturally create negative thinking, which leads to negative beliefs about ourselves and the situation we are in."

Financial difficulties from possible job loss or having to adapt to working from home can compound the stress.

If you're not at home alone, being isolated as a household may create added pressure to all members of the family. Cabin fever, lack of fresh air and being confined to the house can increase tensions. With children now doing their school work at home, another pressure has been added for parents, Harp pointed out. The change is no easier on the students who are adjusting to learning in a new way.

While stress due to COVID-19 can create or exacerbate mental health struggles, there are ways to fight against these problems, with and without professional help.

Promote positive mental health

Grigg said one of the most important actions during social distancing is to stay socially connected.

"When we do this, our thoughts tend to become more positive, we become more hopeful for our future, and we feel more gratitude for what we have," Grigg said. "Now that we are encouraging people to social distance in order to stop COVID-19 from spreading social connection is a much greater challenge, but is possible."

Grigg suggested letter writing, frequent phone calls or video calls and texting as ways to maintain social connection. He shared a story about his mother-in-law's 80th birthday being celebrated through letters of appreciation instead of a party as a way of maintaining that needed connection without breaking social isolation rules.

For those who are not isolating alone, such as families, limiting screen time and connecting with one another is important. Family walks and board games are a great way to stay connected, Grigg said.

Setting and sticking to a routine is another way. Grigg, Matteucci and Harp suggested to maintain good mental health.

"Flexibility and creativity will be people's biggest strength right now, along with the self-discipline to structure their days," Matteucci said. "Determine what you want your day to look like: get a project done, watch Zoom tutorials, play a board game with the kids, have a virtual chat with a friend or relative, write a thank-you note ... Create your own list of positive activities and structure your day accordingly. You will feel accomplished, loved, and perhaps find new, more effective ways of coping with normal anxiety and depression."

Practicing self-care is another effective way to manage mental health during quarantine. Allowing time to reflect and assess your emotional state can be a good way to restore balance, Harp said.

Matteucci agreed.

"Consider reaching for things that have been steady in the past, like some relationships, your favorite book, your faith, exercise and hobbies," he said. "Try to find time for these things and other self-care activities, even if it doesn't feel good in the short term."

Help is available

If attempts such as these to alleviate feelings of depression and anxiety are not effective, professional help remains available. In-person counseling is limited to emergencies, but the Center for Human Development, Blue Mountain Associates and Grande Ronde Recovery and Still Waters Counseling continue to provide services through calls and video chat. Do not hesitate to reach out.

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