Coping mechanisms: Activities, techniques at the forefront of the fight against RGV pandemic stresses

DONNA — While the COVID-19 pandemic may not be over, the Rio Grande Valley has come a long way since those early days and weeks when the coronavirus brought fear and panic to our community.

In these early days, however, the virus did more than spread disease and death; it also sent worried ripples through the collective sanity of the Valley. Local experts have reported that the pandemic has led to an increase in drug addiction and the number of people seeking mental health care.

“As the pandemic progressed…we were told to quarantine, to socially distance and that was good so we didn’t become contagious, so we didn’t catch the virus. But, what it did in terms of mental health, it really affected our mental health because people weren’t used to being isolated,” Marisa Ugalde said at a community mental health awareness event. organized in Donna.

Ugalde was one of many professionals who participated in the “Walk Away From Stress” event organized in partnership with the City of Donna, Behavioral Health Solutions and the UNIDAD Coalition on Saturday morning.

A professional counseling doctor at Counseling Center in Weslaco, Ugalde, said he has seen an increase in the number of patients seeking help to cope with the increased stress caused by the unknowns of COVID-19.

As the pandemic swept the world, she saw an increase in the number of patients with anxiety disorders, especially among those working in industries that were suddenly pushed to the front lines against the virus: medical workers, teachers and the parents.

“They were getting very overwhelmed with all the responsibilities,” Ugalde said.

The stress caused by these increased responsibilities did not even take into account the damage to mental health caused by the virus itself, whether it is seeing loved ones fall ill or not being able to organize a proper funeral.

“The stress of seeing a family member go through COVID-19 and deteriorate and people actually developed post-traumatic stress disorder depending on what was going on,” Ugalde said.

“Things like that have been very, very traumatic for a lot of people,” she said.

People have done their best to cope, but not always in the most appropriate way, according to Vianca Vieyra, coordinator of the UNIDAD Coalition, which focuses on drug abuse prevention.

Vieyra said UNIDAD saw an increase in alcohol consumption, vaping and prescription drug abuse during the early days of the pandemic.

“And a lot of that came from people using substances to cope with what was going on – whether it was stress, anxiety, issues with family members – some of those substances just seemed to be the solution for them,” Vieyra said.

Attendees at Saturday’s Walk Away From Stress mental health awareness event in Donna were invited to participate in an art activity to help manage stress and anxiety. (Dina Arévalo | [email protected])

Worse, UNIDAD has also noticed people putting their recovery efforts on hold while these pandemic-induced stressors are at their worst.

“Because of everything that was going on, recovery or treatment was not a priority for a lot of people because now they were facing bigger stressors, like finances, jobs… So they kind of put their own recovery and treatment (on the) backburner,” Vieyra said.

People are slowly coming back, seeking the help offered by UNIDAD, including peer-to-peer recovery services and support groups, and treatment for youth and adults, but the pandemic has had lasting effects.

It is partly for this reason that UNIDAD organized Saturday’s event. The coalition wanted to give people constructive ways to deal with stress and mental health issues.

“I don’t think any of us were exempt from what we went through. I think even the person who had the healthiest coping skills and strategies and stuff, they probably even felt it too,” Vieyra said.

As a mental health professional herself, Ugalde agreed, even saying she needed reminders for “self-care.”

Part of Saturday’s event was to show attendees practical tips on self-care, including through arts, exercises and mindfulness activities.

For example, Ugalde guided participants through a breathing technique.

“I taught them how to take three deep breaths and hold and then exhale, how that can help relieve some of the stress,” Ugalde said.

Another volunteer guided the crowd by drawing pictures of things that caused stress, then crumpling the pictures as a way to physically show letting go of those stressors.

“It’s super amazing how our brain works, but sometimes it can also be our biggest enemy,” Vieyra said, referring to one of the most confusing aspects of dealing with a mental health issue – when a person’s ability to fight anxiety or depression becomes hampered by intrusive thoughts.

This is perhaps the biggest problem counselors help patients deal with, Ugalde said.

“The big thing we do and help with counseling is to identify your negative thoughts and negative beliefs about yourself. So if you can do that on your own — identify your negative beliefs in yourself — and make that a goal for challenging and reframing, that’s definitely going to help,” she said.

Sara H. Byrd