Why COVID-19 has impacted mental health

There are many reasons why COVID-19 has impacted mental health. I believe if you were to ask most people if this year has been a difficult year generally speaking they would say absolutely.

Before we even were thrust into a life altering upheaval of our daily lives, mental health challenges and substance use disorder was a public health crisis. In six years as a mental health advocate I have heard from over 100 people who were seeking information, support and sometimes advice for how to get help for themselves and/or family members.

As I embarked on attempting to help others with all I had learned over the years, I focused on educating thousands of people from high school and college students to Women’s clubs and the general public.

I share this biographical information with you to help you understand how and why I have insights into how COVID-19 has impacted mental health.

Let’s start with a commonly accepted definition of what being mentally healthy is.

According to the World Health Organization “Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual can realize his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Let’s break the definition down and discuss how COVID-19 has disrupted our collective state of well-being.

1. Realizing his or her potential

In March, most of us experienced a complete shut down of our economy and social outlets. Many people lost their job, had schools of all level cancelled, couldn’t participate in sports events, couldn’t even watch sports. We couldn’t go to church if you wanted too.

The areas that allowed us to tap into our potential had drastically and dramatically stopped, changed or got canceled indefinitely.

This alone creates a challenge for every person living on the planet who had their potential at the very least dented.

2. Can cope with the normal stresses of life

This is an easy one to explain. NOTHING about 2020 has been “normal stresses of life.”

3. Can work productivity and fruitfully

How one has been impacted by work varies, but at the very least we can surmise some have been more productive and fruitful than others. When your family owned small business is forced to close its doors after generations of existing…I wouldn’t even pretend to comprehend how people would process that.

When he or she loses their job or when predominately women have to quit their job to become school teachers, childcare providers, and then the typical role of being a stay at home parent work productivity changes significantly.

4. Make a contribution to his or her community

There are extraordinary circumstances of how so many people have contributed to their communities. Health care workers alone deserve a hero’s respect for their extraordinary efforts.

Essential workers also have daily put their health and well-being and that of their family at great risk of becoming infected. That’s an undeniable contribution to one’s community.

Others have volunteered to help with food banks. Witnessing an unprecedented amount of need in communities across the nation.

There are other examples of contributions.

And yet, other people have had to stay at home and disengage from volunteering. Imagine a retired senior who can’t volunteer because they are at too great of risk of being infected. Or simply any and all volunteer opportunities being cancelled as events with large amounts of in-person gatherings were postponed.

5. Isolation effects mental health

We were told to limit our contact with others, cancel or significantly reduce our holiday gatherings, and for the most part stay away from people not in your household when possible.

The level of impact on isolation is dependent upon each individual. But loneliness and isolation is known to cause mental health challenges or make them worse if you have them.

The list could go on and on and on.

Awareness to these challenges is one thing, how to help ourselves and others recover is another thing.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post mental health challenges was already a public health crisis. The exponential rise in challenges will continue.

Everyone has some level of resilience.

Everyone has a breaking point.

What can you do about it?

Being aware of how you and your loved ones are handling this is a first step. Paying attention to coping strategies and changes in behavior is important.

Being aware of alcohol intake and other forms of numbing emotions or attempts to cope with substances is important.

Seeking professional help when needed. And not being afraid to reach out for support and help from others.

Those are a few suggestions. Doing a “how to cope with COVID” search will yield much more information and potential resources.

The most simple thing we can tell ourselves is this time too shall pass.

I’m not a fortune teller or psychic, but I do understand data and trends. This blog post is a warning of the importance of being aware of our mental health.

The impact on our collective community mental health is just beginning.

Remember challenges are one thing and solutions are another. We will all have to help each other work toward solutions.

Our mental health depends on it.

You can heal emotionally from losses?

I was giving a virtual talk last week about older adults mental health when one of the participants ask an insightful question about depression and grief. It was along the lines of how do I know when to encourage someone to get professional help for grief. My answer was when it interferes with daily activities, relationships and going to work or school. When it becomes so overwhelming a person could benefit from some professional help in coping with intense emotions.

So, how do I even know anything about grief and depression?

Because I have experienced both very intensely. Because I have studied both in my efforts to heal.

It was July 2001 when my father lost his battle with brain cancer. It’s fresh in my mind because a dear friend is experiencing a similar situation. Her stories have sparked my own deep emotions about a time when I had to come face-to-face with mortality- my fathers and my own.

Losing loved ones by any cause is very difficult. It’s beyond sad. Really I think the loss of that conscience person’s spiritual presence in our everyday lives may be the most painful.

But the spirit does live on. I think about the spirit in ways that move me emotionally. The fond memories of experiences and life lessons learned. The joy and happiness of hearing my dad’s truck pull in the driveway or the engine of the red Farmall tractor chugging up the lane.

My daddy taught me many things. How to hunt and fish. How to drive a tractor, take care of animals, bail hay, mark rows in a garden, but what I admire most was he taught me how to help others and to be a good friend.

His death began a two year period where my family would journey through losing six beloved family members.

You feel emotions and pain until you just can’t stand it anymore. You shutdown to survive. But the grief burrows deep inside. Healing comes in segments and bits and pieces.

I was a little surprised at how intensely my tears sprung up when I learned about my friend’s beloved father-in-law who is dying from cancer. I could feel her pain and it reminded me of how helpless I felt.

Loss in many forms can cause grief and grief can trigger depression. It’s very human to be sad, angry, bargain, depressed and accept as the Kubler Ross Stages of grief suggest.

But grief doesn’t start and stop. It flows with us and takes on many forms. It resurfaces with intensity around holidays, birthdays and other reminders. To deny loss of any kind doesn’t hurt is akin to lying to ourselves. Not being honest with ourselves about our emotions makes it harder on our mental health.

I remember praying to God to please take away the pain and sadness. It was overwhelming. What helped me through the grief and later through my depression wasn’t any one thing. It was many. Sometimes there are no simple solutions to complex situations.

Of course playing in the background for me was a little added stressor called bipolar disorder, which as you can imagine even more complicated my healing pathway.

What I know for certain are these few things:

1) Grief isn’t a straight linear process. It’s more like a winding journey on an old country road.

2) Healing is possible. No matter how big the losses are.

3) Professional help along the way can apply a salve for emotional wounds.

4) Compassion for ourselves and others fuels strength.

5) Holding on for just one more day is the hope that helps us cross the bridge and see the light shining even in the midst of darkness.

To all those who are experiencing losses of any kind I send you great compassion and empathy. The mind is powerful but the heart heals the soul.

Peace be with you.

Amy Gamble

Mental Healthiness Requires Work

The first pandemic in nearly a century. It’s a disaster on steroids. It has changed our daily lives. In some ways there has been some positive things that have happened. But sometimes I think those of us who try really hard to find hope in every situation look deeply to turn something extraordinarily troubling into a search for meaning and purpose.

No doubt this is a stressful situation for almost everyone. There’s always an outlier.

Stressful situations can trigger underlying mental health conditions. It can also cause an episode of depression or increase anxiety. In my case, having bipolar disorder has been a benefit and a detriment to my overall mental health.

The benefits are many. One, I know how to manage my mental health. I’ve studied it, struggled finding a balance and utilize my prescribed medications to help me stay even keel. Secondly, I have deep understanding of my illness and how it effects me. This situation has made me even more aware of how symptoms manifest in my everyday life. I’ve gained a great deal of insights in understanding my thinking, emotions and behaviors.

All valuable stuff.

On the other hand, I’ve come to realize one of the symptoms I experience is paranoia. It happens when I get stressed. The more stress – the more ruminating paranoia. It’s actually emotionally painful. Of all the symptoms of bipolar disorder that is the one symptom I never really realized or understood.

And now I do.

Reflecting back in the course of my life I can see how a little kernel of paranoia can turn into making life changing decisions in an instant. Without realizing what I was experiencing it was an extreme vulnerability. It still is. But less powerful because I am aware of it and can do something about it.

My message today is to take a moment and analyze your thinking, emotions and behavior. Stress does interesting things to our brains. The only way we can get ahead of it is to find coping mechanisms to help us deal with the situation in as healthy a way as we can. And if you are struggling reach out to a friend or family member for support. If you feel like you need a little extra help don’t be afraid to reach out to mental health care professionals.

A few things that help me are being outdoors, exercising or doing active physical work, turning off the news, praying, talking to friends and family, doing something mindless, like watching Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Most of all being aware of how this Pandemic is affecting me and what I can do to minimize the negative affects is my key to survival.

I’m reminded of a book I read years ago, “Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do!” In my view, the greatest power in toughness is acknowledging vulnerabilities. It’s like knowing your weakness and playing to your strength. If I can’t dribble well with my left hand, I’m not going to go left when my team needs me to drive hard to the basket. I’m gonna fake left and go hard right every time. And I’m going to work on my left hand, so I get better.

Mental healthiness requires an effort, practice and hard work. In the future we will all hopefully look back on this situation and realize we were a lot tougher than we may have thought. But it will take work to make it through and maintain mental health.

Best wishes to all of you.

Amy Gamble

Wellness Journey: Knowledge is Power

We can’t change, evolve, and grow if we don’t have knowledge. There are many places to find information these days, but the key is connecting to positive and trustworthy sources of information. Bad information from unworthy sources can divert us from our life path and if we aren’t careful cause almost irreparable harm.

I began my true Wellness Journey 12 years ago. There were always challenges and setbacks for me, but in 2008 my world as I knew it collapsed. I entered a period of deep physical, emotional and spiritual challenge as I had never experienced before.

There were several catalysts that brought me to where I ended up. It was as if I had attracted all the forces of negativity and darkness. Their influences on me would overwhelm my ability at the time to cope.

Even in my moments of mental instability I was able to realize what I was experiencing was an upheaval. I had faith that one day I would recover and find healing. My intuition and faith led me to purchase a video camera and capture what I was experiencing.

For around forty-five days in a row and then periodically over the years, I recorded myself and by doing so I now have a snapshot in time which is rich with insights for whomever I choose to share the information with. It demonstrates how far I have traveled on this journey and what is possible for others who may find themselves in a similar position.

Getting to where I am today would not have been possible without acquiring knowledge. I’ve been blessed with many people who have showed up on my path with something to teach me. I’ve learned from reading, studying, teaching others about mental health and speaking.

Every talk I gave, phone call I took, message I responded to and moments I had to reflect, are treasure troves filled with lessons to be able to take this information and help others.

The greatest gift is a transfer of knowledge. Without it – we have no roadmap to navigate our way. The more exposure we have, the easier things become.

Those who are “in the know” hold the keys for others. Whether we choose to give our keys is a personal choice.

Knowledge can be found in many places and forms. It is important to be aware of how what we are learning will help us stay true to ourselves, promote our wellness, ensure our safety and good health and be shared from a place of good intention.

I have learned to gauge everything that comes my way and I try not to judge as positive or negative. Because at the end of the day what I do with the insights I have gained can only help me evolve as a person.

As I move further along my own path of healing and good health, I will continue to share what I know to be true. One of my hopes is to make someone else’s journey a little easier.

Knowledge is the foundation of wellness and everyone deserves to be well.

Kind Regards,

Amy Gamble

Wellness Journey: Healing and harmony

I’m re-reading a book called “No Mud, No Lotus” by Thich Nhat Hanh. My dear friend Bill gave me the book a few years ago. I was in a different place in my healing journey, so the information I was processing about suffering, happiness, acceptance and many other wonderful life lessons is received very different today.

I’m reminded healing takes time.

I loved reading about how powerful staying in the present moment is. Especially striking was not allowing the ghosts of our pasts to victimize us in the present. Though I may have had suffering I don’t have to keep reliving it. I’ve learned to accept it. I don’t have to like some of the things that happened to me as a result of untreated and under treated bipolar disorder, but I can look at it from a different perspective now.

I’m reminded watering the positive seeds are important.

I’m very analytical. Sometimes that means having an overly critical eye on what needs fixed or solved. I’m an excellent problem solver. But sometimes I lose site of all that is right and all that is good.

When I look back with a focus on the positive, I find so many diamonds in the rough. Blessings too overwhelming to count. The truth is for as much trauma and tragedy I have encountered most of my experiences are overwhelmingly rich and pleasurable.

I’m reminded to honor my mind, body and spirit.

I’ve always believed in focusing on mind, body and spirit. I haven’t always practiced it. And this is okay. I accept my imperfections and am aware I will always be growing, learning, evolving and changing. Sometimes we do the best we can and this means we focus on the deepest part of our selves which cries for the most energy, until we find a balance within ourselves.

I’m reminded joy and happiness can come from the little things in life.

I’ve been a big dreamer and have benefited from this kind of mindset. My experiences are indeed so vast, as I have healed I’ve had a chance to focus on drawing upon those treasures I’ve accumulated. But at the end of the day it is still the butterfly showing up on a weed I’m about to cut down, that brings me great joy. The weed still stands for the butterfly to return and the hope of seeing its beauty again brings me happiness.

I’m reminded to find my true aspiration.

Years ago when I first went to college in my journal I wrote I wanted to help people. I pursued a degree in social work. A timeout from college to train for the Olympics took me to a different university without a social work program. But I have learned no matter the profession or what I am doing my true aspiration is to help others. The stronger I become the more energy I will have to give.

And finally I’m reminded to breathe and be grateful for my eyes, my hearing and the opportunity to pursue overall wellness. Any moment I become stressed or anxious or overthinking if I breathe I can ground myself.

I’m sharing this with you as part of my next step in my wellness journey. I know I will always have to live and manage a chronic illness, but I also have come to realize I don’t have to be a victim of it.

Bipolar disorder has not made me weaker it has in fact made me stronger. Perhaps not because I wanted it to or chose it, but it has chosen me and I am empowered to choose how I live in harmony with it.

Wishing you well.

Amy Gamble

My Brain prefers certainty and COVID-19 is not cooperating

The brain likes certainty, predictability and structure. Those things keep our stress response system from being activated. In the middle of a Pandemic all bets are off. If you’ve never had anxiety before and all the sudden find yourself worrying about everything, there’s a good chance you are not alone. Racing thoughts keeping you up at night? Unfounded fears multiplying?

Sitting alone in your car on a drive home from work, where you are deemed an “essential worker” and have been working non-stop since all of the lock downs started, suddenly you feel your chest tighten, your grasping for your breath, your legs are tingling and you think you’re going to die. Most likely you’re having a panic attack.

Mask wearing, excessive hand washing, social distancing, the number of people infected or dying everyday adds to the stress. Add in whether or not your job went away, is not coming back, or you just don’t even have a clue what’s going to happen…this all adds to stress.

In my experience managing anxiety is not an easy task, especially when so many things are outset our control. That’s the first strategy. Focus on the things you can control. We can’t control Uncle Bill’s sudden outrages over having to wear a mask in Walmart, but we can control our reaction to his emotional deluge. We have absolutely no control over politics or anyone’s political opinion, so try to restrain from arguing on Facebook with your friends or family. You won’t change their minds and it will simply add to your stress.

Breath. Sounds stupid, but it really works. Breathing deeply five times and exhaling clears the mind and relieves anxiety almost immediately. It won’t cure you, but it will help make things more manageable.

Take a time out. Walk outside in nature. It’s calming, peaceful and doesn’t have an underlying agenda.

Exercise if only for short moments. Five minutes is better than nothing. Take a five minute walk outside in the neighborhood. Do a pushup challenge with your friends. Find free online workouts you can do from home. Move the body it will help the mind.

Everyday is about taking one small step forward. We can’t get to the end of the tunnel when we can’t see the light. Right now, there’s no light shining. All we know is there’s so much we don’t know. We are living in constant uncertainty.

Be careful what you put in your body to manage these rough times. Too much of any good thing…well it turns into a not so good thing. Too many cigarettes, too much booze, etc. There’s no easy solution to this circumstance.

Take a step back and remember the times you’ve gotten through difficult times. What did you do? How did you think about what steps you needed to take? What helped? Who helped? And smile knowing you made it.

We will live through this time. It won’t be 100% unpleasant nor 100% pleasant. It will be a mixed bag. Stress will come and go. Some people will have it much worse than others. Help someone if you can. Ask for help if you need it.

One day at a time. Find the little joys that make your heart sing.

Wishing you safety and good health,

Amy Gamble

Pay attention to Mental Health warning signs and make the turn!

You’re driving down a road and suddenly see a sign indicating a sharp turn. Do you slow down? If you don’t you risk going over a steep cliff. It doesn’t mean you “will” go over the cliff…it’s importantly a warning sign to prevent an accident or death.

I’ve been a person in the past who ignored the warning signs for my mental health. At almost every turn I went off a steep cliff, nearly resulting in a pre-mature death while lost in the wilderness during a psychotic episode.

I don’t recommend ignoring the warning signs.

The one major warning sign for all mental health conditions (a.k.a. – mental illness) is the interruption of sleep. Have you ever had so much stress when you laid down to sleep the thoughts raced in your mind? Your sleep was interrupted and resulted in you feeling horrible the next day.

Chronic stress impacts are sleep habits. According to the National Institute of Health, “Sleep is important to a number of brain functions, including how neurons communicate with each other. Recent finding suggest sleep removes toxins in your brain.”

After years of ignoring warning signs I’m now hyper vigilant. If I forget every other warning sign, the fact I focus on my sleep–how little or how much–keeps me mentally healthy. If I sleep too much, it’s a good sign I’m cycling into a depressive episode and I use every coping mechanism possible to pull myself out before it gets severe.

If I sleep too little I risk having a hypomanic or manic episode. Hypomania is my warning sign. Allowing too many days without sleep revs my brain so much I can’t think straight and my thoughts race like a runaway train. I do everything in my power to prevent this from happening.

You don’t have to have a mental health condition to have poor mental health.

Coronavirus is impacting our mental health in ways that are known and in ways not yet known. Tom Insel a leading researcher and former head of the National Institute of Health notes deaths by suicide, opiod addictions and significant increases in depression will happen as a result of this pandemic.

This is a warning sign.

If each individual person knew the warning signs for mental health, we could change the curve of what is predicted. Mental health is about thinking, emotions, behavior and how we interact with others as a result of all those things.

Paying attention to our behaviors can give us warning signs. An extra glass of wine on occasion, no big deal. An entire bottle on more than one occasion, red flag. Did you know two glasses of wine a day put a man and one glass for a woman put you at risk for developing a substance use problem?

Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol is very common. I’ve fallen into the trap of drinking too much alcohol, before I even knew self-medication was a “thing.” I pay close attention to what I drink, when I drink and how much I drink if I consume any alcohol at all.

Drugs were never something I was into. Taking prescription drugs to manage a condition is one thing, using them inappropriately is another. These are all warning signs.

My suggestion is to search for positive coping tools, like mindfulness, exercise, proper sleep, meditation, reaching and connecting with a friend.

Most importantly: Get real with how you feel.

And if you aren’t feeling mentally healthy reach out for help. As my Aunt Mary Francis always used to say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” To this I say, “Amen!”

Change our thoughts improve our moods

For many years people who ran the mile believed no one could break the 4 minute mile mark. Then, in 1954 British miler Roger Banister believed if he could change some of his techniques he could break 4 minutes and he did.

As a result of his accomplishment other mile runners around the world began to consistently break the 4 minute mile mark. Of course it took more than “thinking” they could do it. There was effort involved and they had to work at it. But it all started with a thought.

Yesterday I participated in a Zoom call with Oprah. I was 1 of 40,000 people around the world participating. It was really cool.

Anyhow, Oprah shared how the two most powerful words are I am … and what follows I am will hunt you down and show up in your life.

For example, if everyday I wake up and my first thought is “I am frustrated. I am depressed. I am never going to rebound from this pandemic.” My mood will be impacted by what I think.

On the other hand, if I think “I am blessed. I am strong. I am resilient and I will make it through this,” it will set the tone for my entire day. My mood will be uplifted. I’ll start looking for opportunities. What you seek you will find.

I realize a number of people are really struggling right now. Many have lost their job, maybe isolated or possibly have extreme stress from work. If you’re one of those people I am truly sorry. I want to encourage you that now more than ever it’s important to pay attention to what you are thinking.

Thoughts have power. Mood follows thought.

I want to encourage everyone reading to make it a habit to “check-in” with what your thinking. Instead of saying, “I am never going to get through this,” we tell ourselves, “This is a hard time. I am going to make it through this.”

This pandemic is a hard time, but a good time to raise our consciousness and try out some healthy coping strategies.

Hang in there…we will get through this.

Amy Gamble

You can overcome anything!

If I told you- you can overcome anything would you believe me?

Take two fingers and press gently on to the side of your neck. Do you feel it? If you’re reading these words you feel your heart beating. The source of life pumping blood through your veins. You’re alive today and everyday we are alive it is a gift. Even though sometimes life seems so incredibly hard.

I’ve been very blessed and maybe even a little cursed to have had so much time for inner reflection. Without reflection we don’t grow. We stay stuck in the habits and with the autopilot emotions we tell ourselves are really how we feel. We numb out with our socially acceptable glass of wine or beer or whatever other thing we use to hide, numb or bury painful emotions.

I’m a subject matter expert in being out of touch with feelings. Feelings can overwhelm our coping mechanisms. I spent years in therapy and with a library of self-help books just to be able to unravel the layers of complex emotions that make up my psyche.

I am a victim of trauma. All shapes and sizes of trauma. Sometimes the memory comes sneaking up on me like a shadow in the darkness intent on scaring me. Other moments I’m caught off guard and get triggered into a flashback that raises my fight or flight hormones and shoots spikes of anxiety up my shoulder blades.

Sometimes I disassociate. It’s also a coping mechanism. It’s a survival mechanism for the brain.

When we tug on a thread and unravel much more than we intend, it’s hard to cut it off neatly and tuck in the lose remnants. I’ve learned to be cautious on how much I allow to unravel at one time, so not to overwhelm my system. But there are days when some unwanted memories break like a dam and flood my brain.

On those days I go to bed. Take a time out. Doesn’t happen often anymore, but there was a time when it effected me daily for years.

I’ve learned that staying busy helps me cope. Finding the balance of busy is very important. Because the worst thing I can do is not acknowledge a painful past moment. And slip back into the habit of numbing emotions and wishfully thinking they’ll go away forever. They don’t. I’ve just learned how to cope with them.

Some people say, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I’m not so sure that’s just a polite way of dismissing a difficult conversation. I think God helps me most when I’ve felt pushed to the brink. When I’ve questioned why I even got out of bed to try and face the unthinkable, unimaginable and the sometimes perceived horror of my own life’s realities.

And then suddenly as quickly as that thread unraveled, I’ve found a needle and mended the distressed fabric. The emotion that tried to lie to me and tell me I wasn’t strong enough to handle my life journey. The thought or comment that discounted my reality and minimized the effects it had on my soul.

My message to anyone reading today, is that we all have traumas we have experienced. You know the memory, the one that fills you with fear even though the event happened days, months or years ago. The worst thing any of us can do is to compare our scars and scrapes to others. When it comes to trauma, comparing is the equivalent of dismissing. There’s no such thing as, “he or she has had it far worse than me.” or My favorite, “Boy she’s a bigger mess than me.”

Trauma is not a hurdle. Trauma is more like fast moving water we have to cross barefooted with slippery stones underneath. Sometimes it helps to pick up our heads and see who is waiting on the other side. The survivors who have crossed from one side to another and sometimes back again. Making it safely every time.

God is the light that helped me find my way, even in pure darkness. And that is why I have been able to overcome everything that has been put in my path. Not because God gave it to me, but because my faith helped me make it through.