A pandemic is stressful, mental health professionals say.


People are working from home, maybe while also caring for children and assisting them in their education. Others may be unemployed.


The stress levels among health care workers are probably among the highest, said Stephen Keithahn, chief wellness officer for MU Health Care and MU School of Medicine.


“The COVID-19 pandemic is like nothing we’ve seen in my lifetime,” Keithahn said Thursday during a virtual press conference. “I haven’t seen this level of concern, anxiety and fear among health care workers. They fear for themselves and they fear for their families.”


The hospital is trying to make sure employees have the proper amounts of sleep, nutrition and time off as schedules and demands change.


Sandra Miller, social services supervisor for the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services, and Laine Young-Walker, chairwoman of the MU Health psychiatry department, explained ways to cope with stress in separate venues on Wednesday.


Miller took part in a Facebook Live session with the health department. Young-Walker participated in a conference call with two reporters.


“There’s so much uncertainty about the future,” Young-Walker said of the pandemic. “That uncertainty increases anxiety and stress and fear.”


The stress can manifest in unwanted ways, said Beckie Gierer, a director in the Office of Disaster Services in the Missouri Department of Mental Health.


“Stress that is left unchecked can contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure,” Gierer said. “Common effects of stress can include headache, fatigue, sleep issues, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, sadness, upset stomach and lack of motivation or focus to name a few. There are also behavioral reactions to stress which can include overeating, having angry outbursts and using substances.”


With the stay-at-home order in Boone County, social isolation also increases.


During Gov. Mike Parson’s daily briefing, Mark Stringer, director of the Department of Mental Health, said rules and regulations are being waived to allow providers to help people without personal contact.


The waivers allow providers to meet with clients by telephone or online, rather than in person, he said. That is not possible in the state’s mental hospitals and rehabilitation centers for people with developmental disabilities.


“The bravery and dedication of those professionals is truly remarkable,” Stringer said.


It is important to create a new normal during the upheaval, Young-Walker said.


That may include waking up at a consistent time each day, reading a book or taking a walk outside.


People can make a list of things that you’re able to do with the stay-at-home order in place, Miller said. There are things you can control, but “You can’t control how long this goes on.”


It’s normal to want to maintain control, Young-Walker said. It’s why people stocked up at stores on the even of the stay-at-home order.


Self-care is important for dealing with stress, with each individual needing to find what works best for them, Gierer said. She listed exercise, getting enough sleep, taking breaks, yoga, meditation, playing with your dog, engaging in a hobby, hiking, fishing and journaling as examples of self-care.


There is information about handling stress related to COVID-19 on the website of the Office of Disaster Services, Gierer said.


Parents should be open and honest with their children about the coronavirus, while making sure the information is age-appropriate, Young-Walker said.


“Your child is watching you,” she said. “They’re taking a lead from you.”


If a parent does know an answer, it’s important they be completely honest, Miller said.


Children may think something they did caused the pandemic and parents can reassure them they’re not to blame, Miller said.


Maintaining one’s physical health is important to maintain one’s mental health and vice versa, Keithahn said. How you eat, sleep and exercise is critically important.


“Now, more than ever, it’s important for all of us to stay healthy,” he said. “Exercise is critically important to boost the immune system.”


With technology, people can remain connected, he said.


“Human relationships are different now,” Keithahn said. “It’s hard to be close to people physically, but we don’t have to be isolated.”


For those who need immediate help, Miller recommended people call the Burrell Behavioral Health crisis line at 800-395-2132.


A resource for families with children is Family Access Center for Excellence, Miller said.


rmckinney@columbiatribune.com


573-815-1719.