By itself, coronavirus is a respiratory disease. Add to coronavirus one’s particular thoughts and it may become a roiling emotional and social pandemic as well.

Recognizing the indicators of mental distress in yourself and in others can often lead to creating internal strength and a healthier community around you. If “therapy dogs” can be trained to spot signs of mental anguish and respond by leaving people feeling seen, heard, valued, and supported, imagine the impact you can have on your family and friends during this #COVID19 pandemic of anxiety, stress and depression, if you were equipped to properly spot signs of emotional duress.

Nearly half of Americans report harmful emotional indicators during this coronavirus crisis, the Kaiser Family Foundation poll tells us. The World Health Organization warned in May of “a massive increase in mental health conditions in the coming months,” wrought by anxiety and isolation. Indeed, stress and anxiety have become household words, tossed around like it’s normal to feel these emotions. Sadly, it seems that it is. 

Regardless of specific numbers, it’s simply important to know that many are feeling anxiety, trauma, sadness, relationship/partner concerns, loneliness, financial worries, are having suicidal thoughts, and are experiencing sleep issues and emotional abuse.

Here are tell-tale signs to look for to be a better spotter of emotional turmoil:

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Pulling away from people and things
  • Having low or no energy and neglecting self-care
  • Having unexplained aches and pains, such as constant stomachaches or headaches
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Excessive smoking, drinking, or using drugs, including prescription medications
  • Worrying a lot of the time; feeling guilty but not sure why
  • Thinking of hurting or killing yourself or someone else
  • Having difficulty readjusting to home or work life
  • Fear and worry about one’s own health and the health of loved ones
  • Worsening mental health conditions
  • Uncharacteristic aggression, irritability, agitation or moodiness
  • Confusion or forgetfulness
  • Difficulty with concentration or attention
  • Racing thoughts, rapid speech, reckless or inappropriate behaviors
  • Heightened arousal or awareness and grandiosity

When loved ones, family or friends demonstrate these behaviors, it’s time to consider stepping in and offering help. That’s what caring people do. We connect. We help. We extend ourselves. We step up. We reach out. We inspire hope. While there are many ways to do so, and everyone of course is different and will respond in her/his own unique way, there are well-anchored paths to connect with support to leave people feeling seen, heard, valued, and supported. The first step in doing so is to be governed by the fact that our words and our nonverbal actions can have significant positive – or negative – impact on those who are dealing with emotional turmoil.

Those along the spectrum of distress, from healthy negative feelings of simple concern and sadness to unhealthy negative feelings of life altering anxiety, panic, and depression, may find it hard to reach out to you. Be ready to take the first step. Be ready to become a “battle buddy.”

What is a “battle buddy”? Just what it sounds like. Pair up with your friend in need and check in with them during the battle they’re experiencing in this pandemic crisis. It’s as simple as asking how they’re doing, noticing behaviors you see that appear out of the ordinary for them, encourage them to share their thinking and their feelings, and of course encourage self-care.

One point I want to emphasize is to avoid asking “Why?” Not, “Why are you feeling this way,” or “Why do you think you’re feeling this way?” They often don’t know and it too frequently sounds judgmental. 

Another point to avoid is the dismissive condescending pat on the head and a quick “There’s nothing to be worried about. It’ll all be fine.”

In medical care, there is a concept that you can apply here as well. It’s been said that it’s not what’s in the black bag as much as what’s in the heart of the doctor carrying it that influences health care. “Real care of the sick does not begin with costly procedures, but with the simple gifts of affection, love and concern,” said the Dalai Lama. Be sure your own heart is receptive and your mind is open to the pain and anguish that others are feeling. Maya Angelou once observed, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Think about sharing your concerns first from your heart, then from your head and finish with your heart communicating again. When you speak with people heart to heart, they can better hear factual information, what the head is saying.

Here are some messages to communicate with those struggling. Be sure you are present fully tuned into the other person’s feelings, acknowledging emotions, aware of your nonverbal messaging, and hold no judgment as you deliver these types of communication:

1. “You aren’t alone, and I’m here for you, I’m listening, I hear you. We’re going to get through this together.”

2. “No, I may not really understand what you are going through or feeling, but I sure have experienced pain. How would you feel if I shared a tough time I’ve gone through?”

3. “There’s always a way through tough times, and together, we won’t let this defeat you.”

4. “Let’s do something together today that we enjoy.”

5. “I’m concerned about you because you seem____. You sound worried. I want to help ease your mind. How can I be of more help to you?”

6. “What do you feel is the hardest thing, your greatest fear, or concern that you’re struggling with now?”

When you aren’t trying to diagnose, but are simply listening with no judgment; when you are asking more than telling; when you aren’t pushing but allowing the other person to share as much or as little as s/he wants, you are setting the stage to be a co-partner with real help, to offer acts of concern and care.

It’s important to know your limits and to set boundaries to protect yourself. It’s also essential to know when professional support is necessary and then it may be of value to offer to help find that help with the other person, without taking control. You might consider communicating, “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk to me, but it is important that you talk to someone,” or, “I want to do whatever I can, whatever, but I’m feeling that you may do better by talking with someone who is better equipped to help than I am. How would you feel if together we found a professional for you to speak with?”

These aren’t scripts to memorize. These are prompts to use in the language and style your friend will best understand. It’s ultimately not the words you share but the heart you connect with. This COVID crisis will pass. Leaving friends and loved ones feeling your full, heartfelt connection will never pass.