This winter’s pandemic, political and economic disruptions, and quarantines are making many suffer as well as sing the winter blues.
Yet, while these are the days that are trying life and soul, there are things one can do to lighten the load.
But first there’s the darkness.
“I’ve seen increased rates of depression, anxiety, loss, and grief,” says psycholotherapist Mary Goepfert, a Hamilton resident with a Pennington counseling office.
Goepfert, who also provides social services to Trenton nonprofits, says the people she sees “are concerned about everything that is going on. Then add additional stress due to uncertainty, not being able to freely move around, and having to react to shifts in systems they used to rely on — schools systems, grocery stores, workplace environment, and even losing jobs because of COVID.”
A Rutgers-degreed and state-certified counselor with an additional 28 years of experience as the external affairs officer for the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management, Goepfert, now retired, has been actively involved with some of New Jersey’s historic disruptions, including the 9-11 attacks and hurricanes Irene and Sandy.
That up front and personal involvement with blizzards, flooding, and evacuations also led to her appointment as a Fairleigh Dickinson University adjunct professor leading emergency management classes — as well as an individual who has seen her share of social disruptions.
Asked to frame the current pandemic with past problems that have struck New Jersey, she says, “There’s definitely an emergency response (to the pandemic) needed and a coordinated response between different agencies. You see the health department taking a lead role — but other functions of government will provide support for the health department.”
Yet she says our current COVID-19 emergency is different and defies comparison and expectations. “We haven’t had a pandemic in over 100 years. Disasters that people are used to are evacuations and movement, and when individuals are affected other people can help and volunteer.
“This is very different because there is a shutting down. The safety precaution is to shut down rather than leave. Often in a disaster once the community starts to stabilize, you have a period where people are getting assistance and start to rebuild. Then you get a sense of hope. This looks very different.
“Now we have the vaccine, and we have hope there. And several officials are making statements — like Dr. Fauci says, ‘Next fall will be better.’
“But the healing will look different than what we normally experience after a high impact event.”
Meanwhile she sees an increase in her practice in addressing mood disorders, trauma, and addiction, and clients are experiencing “an increase in rates of depression and anxiety, sleep disturbances, and stress.”
Addressing the mind-body connection in dealing with stress and anxiety, she says, “People are practicing unhealthy coping skills — drinking and using substances more, eating more.
“They may not be aware at first, but then they may notice they will have a cocktail to separate their workday and evening. They start with one drink and then it turns to three. Soon they’re consuming a lot of alcohol on a daily basis.”
She says the person may not initially realize it, but eventually “They start to experience negative consequences. For instances, if you consume a lot of alcohol, it is going to have impact with your energy level, interaction with other people, affect your work, and affect your motivation.”
She says while some people become aware of being anxious or depressed, “sometimes they’re not sure what to do about it and don’t have the resources to cope with it — sometimes it’s financial (resources) and sometimes they don’t know where to find help. There is also a lot of stigma out there finding mental health services.”
Two groups especially vulnerable to stress-related problems are healthcare workers and food service providers. “They’re providing all these valuable lifesaving services, but they’re also being challenged in a lot of different ways. And uncertainty is an undercurrent with everything.”
But, she adds, “On the other side of this is that people are adapting and to changes. It may not be their first choice, but people are adapting.”
Now the light.
A way of helping people adapt and work through the pandemic is to stop isolation by staying safely in communication with others. Goepfert mentions the use of Zoom to bring people digitally face to face.
She says it is positive to “stay informed through media, but limit exposure. Check-in in the morning and evening, but avoid following (news) all day. A lot of exposure is a stressor. And avoid ‘doomscrolling’ (aka focusing on only negative news).”
Goepfert also advises individuals to “take care of basic routines necessary for good health. Even though we crave comfort foods — be mindful of nutrition. Get exercise when you can. If you’re working at home, get out walking, especially in winter. If you get 20 minutes of sunlight a day it will be beneficial to your mood. Some people have exercise in their routine, but a walk is fine.”
Then she focuses on something significant: to show compassion. “Self-compassion is good, but we have to remember that people around the world are having the same experience. If you find small ways to show kindness to others that shows humanity. That includes the elderly and people with chronic illness who can’t get out.
“Compassion helps us connect to our shared humanity. We’re all going through this. It’s collective trauma. Even caring for a pet can be a stress reducer.
“Finding small ways to increase your sense of purpose is a way to build hope. And practice self-compassion — realize that everything can be controlled. And that everything is not going to be perfect right now.”
Additionally, she says, “some people have spiritual or religious practices, so that is something that gives them strength. Even if it is continuing their church service through Zoom or continuing their mediation or yoga. Or have a gratitude practice — for instance intentionally taking a few minutes each day to focus on what you’re thankful for, even if they’re small things.”
She another simple thing to do is to stay physically safe and use universal precautions such as wearing a mask, social distancing, and hand washing. “It makes you feel like you at least you’re doing something productive and being part of a solution to a problem,” she says.
Those latter points also point toward the heart of Goepfert’s practice.
The Trenton-raised daughter of a state worker mother and a deli owner father says that during her years with Emergency Management — something that she says happened “kind of by accident” — she also began working with seniors and people with disabilities whose advocacy improved state management plans for everyone. “What we do to help people who are more at risk ends up aiding a broader society. It informed my work. My associations with those groups motivated me to gravitate to the social work field after I retired. I went from helping communities and jurisdictions to helping people one on one.”
As a final reminder, Goepfert says that people should not be alarmed if they feel some level of anxiety because “anxiety serves a purpose, and human beings are hardwired for the bad for survival. Smoke detectors for the home is an example. But when (anxiety) has a negative impact it becomes problematic.”
Goepfert says those looking for help can start with their insurance companies to find out who is in-network with their individual plans.
But if that doesn’t work, she provided a several helpful links. The first is the State of New Jersey’s Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services link that provides listings of professional services by county or zip code: www.state.nj.us/humanservices/dmhas/home.
She adds that the websites www.psychologytoday.com and www.therapyden.com can help individuals find one-to-one counseling close to home, again by zip code, and people who have no insurance or are on tight budgets can find counselors working on a sliding scale at www.openpathcollective.org.
And finally, the Mental Health Association in New Jersey offers information on virtual support at www.mhanj.org/virtual-support-and-learning-opportunities, and the Central Jersey Intergroup (CJI), an Alcoholics Anonymous service organization, offers listings of groups in and around Trenton at www.centraljerseyintergroup.org.
Mary J. Goepfert, Growth and Resilience Collaborative, 245 South Main Street, Pennington. 609-433-4137.