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Mental Health Matters – Managing Stress, Anxiety, and Emotions During A Pandemic

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Illness. Job loss. Isolation. In a world fraught with anxiety and uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, people are seeking ways to manage their stress. The Institute for Disaster Mental Health (IDMH) at SUNY New Paltz is emerging as a vital resource for support and information during this time.

Led by psychologists Amy Nitza and Karla Vermeulen, the IDMH is working to ensure the mental well-being of the campus and community, and beyond. That means helping people as they manage stress, juggle new responsibilities and confront the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two women are more accustomed to dealing with natural disasters, like the earthquake in Puerto Rico, where they helped train teachers in helping their students. A global pandemic however, is an entirely new kind of a disaster, with no clearly marked beginning, middle and end.

“Usually, with a natural disaster, it happens, and it’s over,” says Vermeulen, PhD, deputy director of the IDMH. “There is a warning period, then you’re in the middle of it, and then there’s a post-impact phase where you can recognize the losses. Now there’s no endpoint. There’s just this element of dread.”

Finding Calm in Chaos

Since 2004, the IDMH has served as a resource for helping victims overcome the stress and trauma caused by disasters. The IDMH has lent their expertise on all types of events, from earthquakes and floods to school shootings and car crashes. The institute also trains and works with students, the community, and people in helping professions to help them deliver evidence-based and culturally appropriate support.

Overcoming the mental health challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a struggle, especially since it’s still happening. “Getting people to be safe and feel safe is the first step in the recovery process,” Nitza says. “But right now, things are so indefinite. The ambiguity makes it hard for people to recover.”

Social distancing has added to the difficulty. On March 23, Nitza and Vermeulen did a webcast to the Administrative Council at SUNY New Paltz, along with faculty and other staff. Also in virtual attendance were local government officials, including village trustees and the mayor.

The presentation, which was called “Psychological First Aid and Stress Management,” was designed to help participants understand the impact of stress and trauma and how to minimize it. The two women spoke to an empty room during their talk, despite the presence of 125 people who had participated through Webex.

“We did receive a lot of positive feedback,” Nitza says. “They were looking for concrete things to do and ways for taking care of themselves and other people.”

The institute also published a series of tip sheets for managing stress, coping with the pandemic, and managing relationships under stay-at-home orders.

Advice for the Anxious

Enduring the various facets of stress from the pandemic requires thought. For starters, it’s important to recognize that anxiety during the pandemic is to be expected. Other tips include:

  • Be in the moment. Focus on what’s happening right now, without trying to imagine or contemplate what the “new normal” will look like.
  • Have a designated worry time that allows you to compartmentalize your concerns.
  • Limit media exposure. Watch or read the reports once in the morning and once at night. Resist the urge to follow the news all day.
  • Figure out what stresses you out the most, and find ways to minimize it. If it’s grocery shopping, consider getting groceries delivered or ways to reduce your time in the store.
  • Be mindful of all the positive things you do have.
  • Find ways to stay connected to family, friends, and colleagues.

Vermeulen says she takes comfort in remembering the tragedy of 9/11. “Things did become okay again, even though they were impactful and long lasting. I firmly believe we will get through this, too.”


For more resources, view The Psychological First Aid & Stress Management Toolkit Power Point.

Written by Winnie Yu

Winnie Yu is a writer in the Office of Communications at SUNY System Administration.

April 21, 2020

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