The Main Focus: Coping Mechanisms and Covid: What You Need To Know – Part 2

Interview with internationally renowned researcher, Professor and Former Chair, Department of Psychology UC Berkeley and mental health stigma expert Stephen Hinshaw  (Part 2)   

In part two of The Main Focus with Stephen (Steve) Hinshaw, we dive into topics specific to the workplace such as how we can avoid toxic environments or unnecessary stressors during this strange time. For those of you who may not have joined us for part 1 of this interview, Steve Hinshaw is a leading psychologist, renowned professor at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, pioneer in mental health and stigma reduction, and one of our favorite authors. Read more to hear about his insights for working through COVID -19 and how we can keep our minds healthy in a time where self-care has become even harder than usual. 

We’ve been hearing a lot about addiction, especially within corporations that breed toxic cultures and have people working around the clock. While addiction has always been in the workplace, have you seen this trend increase due to COVID-19 and the fact that people are working from home?

Here is what we do know even though we still need far more national and state level data on this. Just about all liquor stores have remained open; they’ve been deemed “essential services”. We know that alcohol, nicotine, and illicit drugs used by people to help cope are huge health risks. Many drugs, especially alcohol, are triggers for loss of temper and violent behavior. We have seen data about shocking upticks in intimate partner violence and domestic violence. When the additional data emerge out over the next few months on addiction, child abuse, maltreatment, spousal abuse, and elder abuse, I’m afraid to see what kind of kind of increases they’ll show.

These are acts that are often not caused by drug use per se,  but are triggered by or enhanced by drug use, especially alcohol use. If we talk about addiction at a larger level – COVID-19 has left people feeling lousy, worried about income, and seeking an escape from pain in a quick way – substance use may be a temporary coping mechanism but certainly not a healthy one. To escape from pain is often to use the nearest substance, so because of this, I’m pretty worried about it. 

“COVID-19 has left people feeling lousy, worried about income, and seeking an escape from pain in a quick way.”

— Stephen Hinshaw

You make a great point about how alcohol and drugs are coping mechanisms. Are there other coping mechanisms that you’re witnessing during the pandemic? 

Unless you have a big place or a mini gym in your house, how do you work out and exercise? How do you regulate sleep when stress levels are high–and when you’re raising kids who aren’t on their regular day care or school schedules? There’s recent research out about how vivid people’s dreams are now because we aren’t getting as much sensory stimulation during the day. So not exercising regularly, not sleeping well, being in close quarters – and of course, people with lesser means are often in very close quarters – could well lead to an increase in risk of violence, verbal conflict, and as noted in the first interview, anxiety and depression. 

As for getting help, there are more meditation apps than ever, there are relaxation strategies, there are ways of trying to be more “zen-like” in the face of this uncertainty. The first piece of advice I always give is, if you have found something that works to help de-stress yourself,  that’s great – use that again. Number 2, titrate the news that you allow yourself to read, see, and feel. We don’t want to be uninformed, but if you have news flashes on all the time about the latest predictions, it can trigger depressing feelings and even panic. 

Number 3, use the free-access companies are providing digital options for relaxation, meditating, etc. and try to keep a schedule…even though many of us hardly know what day it is most of the time. Those kinds of routines, including family meals, online chats with people you’re close with, can help keep connections going. 

We’ve been seeing warnings about the negative effects of screen time. Do you see a reliance on digital technology as a future threat to our mental health? Or is this just the necessary way forward? 

Based on lots of research over the last few years, especially on teens and digital tech, if they’re using online access to have any relationships at all, that’s a pretty good predictor of greater anxiety, depression, and stress. It’s a double edged sword in that social media can keep us more connected, but If we come out of this with only an online world, I don’t think that’s going to be good for our mental health. But if we, as we’re forced to right now, can preserve the best aspects of it and find safe ways to interact in the real world as well, we might be able to have the best of both worlds.  Studies reveal that social media can supplement real-world friendships, not substitute for them.

My hope is that we’ll find and preserve the best ways of staying connected online throughout this time. Teletherapy or online therapy may be a really good outcome of all of this, and something we can continue for greater mental health access going forward.  Of course, there’s unequal access to smartphones, broadband internet, and the like, so tech is not the full answer for everyone.

“My hope is that we’ll find and preserve the best ways of staying connected online throughout this time.”

— Stephen Hinshaw

How can workplaces adjust their practices during crises or pandemics to accommodate their employees and avoid spinning into this vicious cycle of nonstop work? Do you have any advice for company leaders that we can share? 

Well, pre-covid, through the ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary this summer), it’s illegal in our country to discriminate against a person with a mental or physical disability in public or in the workplace. Yet most people who bring suit against an employer under ADA, do so because of a physical disability, ‘I can’t get access to the bathroom, I need a ramp to even get in the building’, and those can be costly interventions, but of course we have to make those accommodations so that there’s equal access. 

Relative to the great numbers of people with mental disorders, only the minority of suits under the ADA emanate from people with depression or anxiety or agoraphobia, or what have you, because of the shame and the stigma. But if you think about it, what does an employer have to do to accommodate somebody with a mental health condition? Usually, it’s not expensive. Flex time – allow your employees to leave a little early to go see your therapist – or, if your employee has panic attacks precipitated by the elevator, you find an office on the first floor not the 8th floor. Now, most of us are working from home, so this may be a signal that work may be a different environment moving forward – well past COVID. 

On the other hand, as you’re aptly pointing out, this increased flexibility and sense that “you’re always at work”– because you’re not commuting to and from the office–can lead to incredible stress and an real lack of boundaries between your family life and your personal life and your romantic life and your work life. How often do you check your email in the middle of the night for that emergency message from your coworker?  Or because your sleep is disrupted related to the sheer stress of the pandemic? 

The hopes are as follows: A. the economy can get jump started and going in the right direction;  B. that we have sane work productivity expectations. The flexibility really is a double- edged sword. Maybe we’re going to learn to work remotely forever in productive ways, as long as employers are sensitive to the risk of burn-out.  And of course the biggest stress is for people out of work who desperately need to get back into the workplace.

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