Psychiatrist offers tips for navigating pandemic anxiety, reminding others to wear a mask

In the midst of the pandemic, many people are developing patterns of unhealthy behavior, such as turning to substances like alcohol to cope, while others are rebelling and bucking recommended health precautions.

A local psychiatrist said there are alternatives to explore in confronting both issues.

“In the beginning, it was about infectious disease and following the direction of doctors like Dr. Anthony Fauci, and that’s what you heard about. But now it’s all about human behavior and the human behavior of people not doing what they need to do,” said Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, chair of psychiatry at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

As the country’s first public health disaster psychology fellow, Cameron Ritchie explained that it may be more effective for the general public to encourage wearing masks as a way to care for loved ones.

“If we all said to each other, ‘Please, wear a mask. Please, keep that mask over your nose.’ I say to people,’ Please mask up!’ when people wear it under their nose,” she told WTOP.

Changing behavior is no small task, and Cameron Ritchie admitted it can be tricky to ask a perfect stranger to change their ways. However, she said one doesn’t have to be a doctor to take care of others.

She suggested another approach is to make sure your comment relays a concern for the other person.

“I don’t want to infect anyone when I go out, so sometimes I’ll say, ‘Hey I could be infectious so please keep your mask up around me,” she said.

There is little question that a majority of the public is experiencing quarantine fatigue but simultaneously has mixed feelings about going out in public and returning to normal too soon, which some states have done to the detriment of controlling spread.

“We know people are drinking more and probably smoking more, although I don’t know if we have a good way of measuring that,” she said.

Despite human ability to adapt, many have lingering feelings of uncertainty, as no one knows how long social and health restrictions will continue.

“I’ve seen waves of anxiety and grief: anxiety when it was first hitting us, grief as we began to realize everything that was lost to us, from graduations to birthdays and funerals,” Cameron Ritchie said. “And in between these waves, some numbness, feeling battered.”

She said it’s not uncommon to have difficulty sleeping. But instead of turning to substances to numb the feelings, Cameron Ritchie said to focus on what you can control.

“One of the best ways to do that is to perform small acts of kindness … what can you do that will make an immediate difference to someone that you care about or maybe to a stranger? Give to a food bank — do what you can,” she said.

Some other recommendations:

  • Pick up litter
  • Take a daily walk
  • Leave uplifting notes on neighbors’ cars
  • Write letters

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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