Life Interrupted: Tips and Advice From Five Local Psychologists and Mental Health Experts

We’re all in this together, and we have a month more of staying at home. So, how can we help ourselves and others get through this pandemic? We asked local experts to weigh in.
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Let’s be honest. This past month has been rough. I, for one, am still having a tough time adjusting to this new normal. And it’s not just the fact that there’s a dangerous virus out there, which already gives me a lot of anxiety. But it’s also missing the everyday things that we once took for granted: spending time with family and friends, dining at our favorite restaurants, grocery shopping without wearing masks, blowing off steam at exercise classes and going into work (an office, not your living room).


While we don’t have full control over the COVID-19 pandemic, we do have control of how we deal with it. I reached out to the experts at the Hawai‘i Psychological Association and the Hawai‘i Association of School Psychologists to find out what we can do during these crazy times and where people can go for free support and help.


Be aware of your emotions

This may sound like common sense, but acknowledging that we’re in uncharted territory and that it’s OK to feel uneasy is important, experts say. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is scary. Yes, you may feel anxious about what will happen to you and your loved ones. That is totally normal. Be mindful of your anxiety and what triggers it.



Focus on what you can do

It’s easy to start overthinking everything. But what seems to help is focusing on what we can control in our lives—simple things like washing our hands and social distancing, says Keri Anacker, a school psychologist who serves students in ‘Aiea, Moanalua and Radford.


Officials agree that it’s important to still find happiness in the smallest things, such as looking forward to video chatting with co-workers or signing up for virtual exercise classes. Set different goals and tasks for yourself every day, and reward yourself when you’ve accomplished them. If you finished organizing your kitchen pantry, your reward could be a warm bath or a favorite meal.


SEE ALSO: HONOLULU Magazine’s Social Distancing Fitness Challenge: Body-Weight Workouts to Try at Home


“Look for the positives … and moments of joy,” says Nozanin Yusufbekova, a clinical psychologist and lead clinician at the National Center for Psychological Services in Hawai‘i. “Think of the challenges that you’ve overcome in the past and put things in perspective. If you were able to overcome those challenges … you can overcome this.”


Laying out a plan and boundaries for yourself and your family is key. To differentiate work and play, Anacker suggests setting up physical boundaries using tape and cones so kids know that when you are in that space, you’re working. She says setting a timer can help too, especially since children can see the time passing with their own eyes. You can let them know that when the timer is up, you’re available.



Jim Spira, a licensed psychologist who’s been practicing for 25 years, recommends not watching too much COVID-19 news but instead getting a snapshot of updates in about 10 to 30 minutes. In short, don’t become obsessed with all of the problems in the world, especially the ones you can’t control. Amanda Garrett, a school psychologist who works in elementary and middle schools in Mililani, agrees that limiting conversations with kids about COVID-19 is important. Answer their questions and be open, but don’t let that be the only topic of discussion, Garrett recommends.


For kids, give them choices—do they want to read first or go on a walk? “Just something that gives them a little sense of power because this is an extremely powerless situation for children,” Anacker says. “Instill in them that sense that they can make a difference even though they’re not in school.”


SEE ALSO: 30 Hawai‘i Keiki Books to Add To Your Library


Create a new routine

Although most of our daily routines have changed, try your best to create new ones. Having some structure during such a crazy time can help, Yusufbekova says. She suggests waking up and going to sleep at the same time you did before the coronavirus, and to maintain a healthy diet.


And Yusufbekova and Spira agree that there’s an upside to having more time. Find a new hobby, learn to play an instrument, tackle your reading list or try a new recipe.


SEE ALSO: Things to Do at Home: Take a Class or Learn a New Skill


“We tend to get into habits and take things for granted,” Spira says. “Although we wouldn’t wish [the coronavirus] on anybody, it does afford us the opportunity to examine our habits, lifestyle and relationships so we can come out of this better.” He advises people to choose activities that give them the greatest value for their time and effort.


For parents whose children are distance learning, don’t overstress yourselves, and give yourself a break. You’re (probably) not a teacher. “The state Department of Education is focusing on enrichment rather than teaching a new skill,” Anacker says. “We don’t want parents to be overwhelmed. It’s more about providing support and activities. You’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.”


SEE ALSO: Art Class Made Easy: Fun and Easy Drawing Tutorials Keiki Will Love


Faith Zabek, a school psychologist on Kaua‘i and president of the Hawai‘i Association of School Psychologists, says parents can help by re-creating centers in homes that mimic a classroom setting, such as designating the living room for puzzles and drawing and the back porch for reading time.


Also, regularly devote time to family activities such as eating together or playing a game. That helps everyone in the family connect after a day of doing their own things. “Keep the family time however you want to do it,” Garrett says. “It’s going to look different in every family.”



Stay connected

Social distancing doesn’t mean you have to feel isolated. This is especially important for people who are living by themselves. To connect with your family and friends, officials recommend reaching out in whatever way you’d like—texting, calling or video chatting.


For many high school seniors who are missing out on prom, graduation and all of the other special end-of-year activities, Zabek says that it’s OK to take some time to mourn that. “Allow yourself to feel sad, and then try to use it as an opportunity to connect with your peers … and get creative about how you’re connecting.” One way you can do that is through organizing a virtual prom where everyone gets dressed up.


Help others

Sometimes the best way to feel better is by helping others in need. One of Zabek’s students was so happy when his older sibling helped him with his math homework. Deliver groceries to your elderly neighbors or write nice messages on the sidewalk with chalk.


If you have a story or want to say thank you to someone who showed kindness and compassion, share it with us in HONOLULU’s Heart of Honolulu series


SEE ALSO: Heart of Honolulu: An Aunty on the Big Island, a Kick-Butt Dancing Queen and a Really Hot Dinosaur


Lots of self-care

This cannot be said enough. Finding personal space and dedicating a few hours to yourself, even if you’re living in a cramped multigenerational house or with a large family, is essential, experts agree.


Exercising and meditation can really make a difference, too—not just physically but emotionally. There are several apps and online resources that can help you do this. We’ve compiled a list below based on suggestions from experts interviewed for this story.


Parents need breaks. When the kids are watching a movie, take those two hours for yourself. Take a walk (or a nap) or get work done. “Make sure you’re modeling self-care not only for yourself but for your kids, too,” Zabek says.



If you need help, ask

Some Hawai‘i psychologists are offering free sessions to people who were laid off or who have lost their insurance. You can find a directory of Hawai‘i Psychological Association members here.


Resources to help

The Hawai‘i Health Department has expanded its crisis line to help people experiencing anxiety and stress due to COVID-19. Call the state’s crisis line toll-free at 800-753-6879 or text the word aloha to 741-741. For more details, go here.


The DOH and UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine are offering online appointments with mental health specialists. The first appointment (and potentially more after that) is free. Click here to sign up.


The Hawai‘i Psychological Association is offering pro bono support sessions of up to four hours for those who have lost their insurance or jobs. The nonprofit also has a virtual class on managing stress for health care workers, and mental health resources and more are available for the public. For more information, click here.


The American Psychological Association also has videos, podcasts, webinars and more resources to help during the pandemic. Go here for more info.


The National Association of School Psychologists has articles, guidance and tips for parents, teachers and children. Click here for more information.


Several apps help with everything from stress management to sleep and meditation. Here are some recommended by the experts in this story:


Read more stories by Jayna Omaye