Hiking Bob: Mental Health during trying times

As the COVID-19 crisis continues taking it's toll on the physical health of many people, and the economic health of the country, there are also psychological effects. It might be the worry of contracting or already having the virus, or of spreading it to someone near and dear to you, or financial worries, or any of the other myriad things we have to worry about. These are trying times.

Then, there is the "social distancing" we're encouraged to do, and suddenly we can be all alone. "Social distancing, I think for most people is actually experienced as social isolation," says Nora Cielo, a licensed professional counselor and the director of behavioral health at the Mind Body Health Center in New Providence, New Jersey (Disclosure: Cielo is the cousin of this column's author).

"I'm noticing a lot of increases in anxiety and depression," she notes.Whileour electronic devices allow us to still see and virtually interact with our friends and loved ones, "there is just something about the human experience that is just meant to be in the presence of another human being," she says, "and when that is taken away, we do see a lot of disconnect and inability to cope".

When it comes to people who engage regularly in outdoor recreation, the social isolation can have more profound effects. "The connection to nature is very vital to all of us," Cielo says, "so what do we do in those situations?" She suggests doing things that we are already doing: getting outside as much as possible and enjoying the the outdoors. For people who can't get outside — those who may have actually tested positive for COVID-19, or who may be exhibiting symptoms, for example — Cielo recommends simple things to connect with the outdoors, like looking at photos or live video streams provided by national parks, or even the use of virtual reality technology. For people who may have underlying anxiety disorders, Cielo recommends that they learn visualization techniques from a mental health professional.

Of course, if you're trying to avoid settling into anxiety or depression, you need to know what to look for in both yourself, and those around you. According to Cielo, one indicator of increased anxiety is a heightened fight or flight response, such as feeling more nervous than normal, or being frightened of things you may not normally be frightened of. Another indicator is withdrawing from contact with others. Someone may be suffering from depression if they "are not communicating well with their loved ones," says Cielo, "not staying connected, being on the phone, finding other ways to communicate."

Social media can be used to either stay connected with others, or to give you a heads up if someone else isn't doing well.  The person who usually posts something every day — a photo, a witty saying, or an opinion on whatever topic is trending — and then suddenly stops posting, may be exhibiting signs of depression. Similarly, if you find yourself not wanting to engage in activities you normally do for more than a couple of days, it could be a sign that you are falling into depression. To combat these feelings, Cielo recommends making a list of 10 things you like to do, and each day doing at least half of them.

And finally, Cielo recommends staying with your regular routine as much as possible. Get up when you usually do, shower and dress as you if you were going to work or outdoors, and keep your life as close to normal as possible. And remember, this isn't going to last forever.

Be Good. Do Good Things. Be Well.

Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, business owner and author of Hiking Bob's Tips, Tricks and Trails, available via his website. He has lived in Colorado Springs for almost 28 years. Follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (@hikingguide), Instagram (@HikingBob_CO) or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: info@hikingbob.com.