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Sleep, sunlight and self-care: A psychiatrist’s advice for pandemic mental health

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging Americans physically, financially and emotionally. With the dramatic and abrupt life changes the outbreak has caused, what can we do to prioritize our mental health? Dr. Sue Varma, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University, joins Amna Nawaz to answer viewer questions about sleep, anxiety, talking to kids and more, for our series Ask Us.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    That brings us to Ask Us, where we take your questions on the coronavirus to experts who can help make sense of these challenging times.

    We have had an incredible response across our Web site and our various social media platforms, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

    For the record, Facebook is a funder of the "NewsHour."

    Amna Nawaz has more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

    And thanks to all of you for sending us your questions.

    This week, we're focusing on your concerns about mental health. And from the responses we got, it's clear it's an issue that's hitting home for many of you right now.

    So, to answer your questions, we're joined by Dr. Sue Varma. She's clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University.

    Welcome, and thanks for being here, Dr. Varma.

  • Sue Varma:

    Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let's jump right into the questions.

    Our first one comes from Sherry Williams in Columbus, Ohio. She sent us a video on Facebook.

    Here is Sherry now.

  • Sherry Williams:

    Oftentimes, I'm laying awake at night with my mind racing, thinking about anything from, if I'm going to lose my job, to my finances, wondering if myself or someone in my family is going to catch coronavirus.

    Are there any tips for dealing with insomnia during these times?

  • Sue Varma:


  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Varma, that stress and anxiety of the time can lead to insomnia. What do you say to Sherry?

  • Sue Varma:

    So, Sherry, first of all, you're not alone.

    We know that a lot of people are experiencing a variety of things that you're touching upon, and some of which is anxiety during the day. And get this. There are a lot of people who say that they're not even feeling anxious. They're not even noticing their anxiety during the day, and it's only manifesting in the form of sleep disturbances, like insomnia.

    So, one thing I want to say is, good sleep hygiene for me begins during the day. It's not just at night. And part of this means, if you're able to get any exposure to daytime sunlight, this would be huge.

    What this does is, it shuts down the melatonin, which is a hormone that helps you sleep at night. It shuts it down during the daytime and it says, hey, it's time for us to stay awake. Ten or 15 minutes in the morning for a brisk walk would help.

    And, in general, getting adequate exercise, movement, again, 15 to 20 minutes.

    And I'm a big fan of addressing our worries. A lot of what you're talking about is what we're thinking, what we call catastrophizing, thinking about the worst-case scenario.

    Ask yourself, what is the best-case scenario? What is the most likely scenario? And keeping a worry diary, which is basically five minutes a day of writing everything that you're worried about.

    And what helps is, over time, we see that, 85 percent of the time, the things that we worried about don't actually happen. And the 15 percent of the time that they do, we're actually able to better handle it than we think that we are.

    But you're not alone. Stick to a routine daytime, at nighttime. Wake up the same time as much as possible.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Sherry, we wish you good sleep out there.

    Let's move now to another question from Sandy Gavilanes. She's from Chicago. She also sent us a question on Facebook. And here's what she wrote. She says: "I have a 4-year-old son. How do we explain COVID-19 to him without causing more worry and more stress, especially when he is so young?"

    Dr. Varma, how do you talk to young kids about this time that even adults are trying to make sense of?

  • Sue Varma:


    And it really depends on the age, the developmental stage, how much information they can handle. But, generally speaking, when it comes to a 4-year-old, what they really need is reassurance from you that everything is going to be OK. And keep things extremely simple.

    You can say, some people are getting sick out there. Some of them are getting better. We're here to help you. What are your specific questions? And maintaining a routine as much as possible, keeping them distracted, being able to have fun with them, but also watching and managing their own stress levels.

    We know that children very much experience contagion stress, contagion from their parents. Try to get 10 or 15 minutes for deep breathing, for meditation, using an app for yourself, so that you can be there to be able to provide the calm reassurance, guidance that your children need.

    But when it comes to a 4-year-old, please, just keep it very simple.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Great advice we can all use. I know I'm taking personal notes on all of that.

    Let's move now to another video question.

    This one is from Sherry Frachey, from Rochester, Illinois. Here's the thing to know about Sherry, Dr. Varma. She's been a teacher for 43 years. She reached out on Facebook.

    Here is Sherry now.

  • Sherry Frachey:

    Recently, I have embraced online learning. I still miss the students. Our governor announced that the students and teachers will not reconvene this year. And I retire at the end of the year.

    I never imagined going out this way. It's really so sad, and I'm grieving. I imagine there are others in similar situations. Do you have any advice for us?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's a big change of life.

    Go ahead. What do you have to say to Sherry?

  • Sue Varma:

    Yes, I was going to say, first of all, bless you, bless your heart. You are the lifeblood of this country, and thank you for teaching and educating our children.

    As a parent who is doing homeschooling, I can tell you that doing double duty is not easy.

    And I would say, celebrate what you have accomplished. And this can be in the form of phone calls, letters. Ask people to — let people know how you feel. And if you have access to Zoom or Skype or FaceTime, have a virtual send-off party, a retirement party.

    And, hey, when things get better, because I absolutely believe that they will, you will have to have your chance to see people face to face. But now ask them to express their sentiments by writing or phone calls.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we hope she can have that celebration someday soon. Thank you to Sherry.

    One last question now coming to us from Facebook, Dr. Varma. This one comes to us from Maryum Saifee. She writes in about a personal trauma.

    And she writes: "As a survivor of female genital mutilation, emotional well-being is a top priority. This pandemic is a mixed blessing. The solitude allows for reflection, but can also be deeply isolating. How can I best handle the ups and downs of social distancing?"

    What do you say to her, Dr. Varma?

  • Sue Varma:

    Well, I would say, first and foremost, that, you know, I have so much admiration for the courage that she has to be able to talk about this.

    So, don't forget that we're talking about somebody who's extremely resilient. And when it comes to resiliency, there's certain hallmarks that we look for, optimism, sense of humor, social support, altruism.

    I think it's really important to recognize that we are all experiencing grief. Even if you're used to being a leader, give yourself a break, take naps, take rest, and support yourself and your mental health, and make that a priority right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's such an important message: We are all in this together.

    Dr. Sue Varma, thank you so much for being with us and taking these questions.

  • Sue Varma:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And thanks to all of you for your questions.

    You can send us more via "NewsHour"'s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts or on our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour.

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