Staying mentally strong

Even psychiatrists experience Covid anxiety

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Dr Supara Chaopricha -- a psychiatrist who manages her own practice -- feels that psychiatrists are not exempt from feeling stressed or anxious, which leads to anxiety, a feeling of fear, worry and uneasiness.

"At the end of the day, psychiatrists are human and susceptible to mental health issues if they forget to practice what they preach and follow the guidelines they suggest to patients to cope with stress," Dr Supara said.

Thailand is being hit very hard by a fourth wave of Covid-19 with daily infections surging to five-digit figures. While the psychological impacts of the crisis are inevitable among the general population, Thailand's frontline healthcare workers are under psychological pressure too amid the deadliest wave which is showing no signs of easing.

Among medical specialists recruited to help shoulder the responsibility of treating Covid-19 patients are psychiatrists, who have been overwhelmed with the unprecedented crisis despite being well-versed in the science of the mind.

In the case of Dr Supara, she admitted that whenever she feels her defence is down, she has to quickly regroup her thoughts.

"Stress and anxiety should be properly managed. I mitigate stress by taking measures to reduce risks of infection such as frequent handwashing and social distancing. To relieve my anxiety further after treating patients, I try to maintain a routine. This involves dividing my time relaxing and connecting with friends and family, preferably online.

"Although I consume news from reliable sources, I limit reading and listening about Covid-19 cases and deaths, which can trigger stress. I also take breaks from social media, which is full of both reliable and unreliable pandemic-related news by opting to watch Netflix instead. This often does the trick for me when I feel stressed."

Dr Apichart Jariyavilas, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Health's Mental Health Department, said the overwhelming number of daily Covid-19 cases has had an emotionally draining effect on medical personnel as it was getting more difficult to keep up with cases.

Psychiatrists like himself have had to once again hit medical books to better treat symptoms of patients under their care. "Looking after psychiatric patients comes with a certain amount of stress, so when it is coupled with the added responsibility of treating Covid-19 patients, there is naturally an overload of stress on our shoulders. Psychiatrists are human beings like everyone else. Just because we are equipped with the tools to look after our mental health doesn't mean that it becomes easier for us."

Dr Apichart admitted that like everyone else, the underlying fear of contracting Covid-19 is always in the back of the minds of medical personnel, including himself.

"It is anxiety-inducing to think that if I am asymptomatic, I can infect people around me with coronavirus. As healthcare workers, we have to put in double the amount of effort to see that this doesn't happen.

"One way that I look after my mental health is by evaluating how I am feeling emotionally. This is important because stress can happen both consciously and subconsciously. If I overlook my mental health, the first thing to suffer will be the quality of my treatment."

Dr Supara echoed the same sentiment. Sharing how she gets overwhelmed and anxious about the possibility of contracting the coronavirus, Dr Supara recalled a recent experience in which she developed dizziness after returning from grocery shopping.

"This was a condition that I hadn't encountered in the past, so I wondered if it could have been associated with Covid-19. I began to fret over it for a while until I had to stop myself and think more rationally. Instead of getting worked up, I opted to investigate if what I was experiencing was a condition to worry about. Well, I was happy that it wasn't."

As the world is still learning about the pandemic, Dr Supara said the mind can sometimes play all sorts of tricks on you when it comes to thinking rationally.

"Of course, anxiousness and stress come from the unknown but the crux of the matter is that I acknowledged the emotions I was experiencing, which is the first step. Secondly, I shared this experience with a Line group of doctors from Ramathibodi hospital, many of whom are my fellow colleagues. This helped me gain a better perspective of what I was encountering."

If there are two things she would like the public to take away from her experience, it is to keep a check on emotions and find activities to destress daily.

"From personal experience, when you begin to obsess about a situation, don't waste your time not doing anything about it. The fact of the matter is that when you are in such a mindset, being idle can drive you into thinking that life is all doom and gloom. You might find all the reasons to make yourself believe that entertaining such negativity is justified because it is really happening. However, this does more harm than good for your sanity."

Like the rest of the public, Dr Apichart said psychiatrists are not spared from feeling overwhelmed by the constant reporting of the pandemic and the rapid changes in people's lifestyles.

He noted that the public wakes up every morning with daily updates of infections, death toll, and the overall situation globally, together with statistical trends and figures that are monitored and reported by health officials. This also impacts national policies, which he said are changing as the pandemic goes from bad to worse.

"These changes generate a high degree of uncertainty, resulting in unpredictable planning and a stressful situation for everyone," said Dr Apichart.

"Schools have closed and all international flights, for the most part, have been put on hold. Unnecessary travel in and out of provinces is also discouraged. People have been laid off while others have been notified of forced resignations at short notice, thus making it next to impossible to prepare. With all this going on in one's life, some mobile apps have been created to provide hourly updates about Covid-19.

"These applications alert users every time a new confirmed case is reported, creating panic and distress while fake news has the same impact on people's mental health. I believe what has worked for me is getting all the information I need about the pandemic from credible sources so I can properly look after myself and my loved ones. In this manner, I can emotionally have a better day than being constantly reminded about the number of cases and deaths."

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