Protecting your mental health from global stresses


In this article:

  • Global events – including COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine – have impacted our mental health.

  • Remembering self-care is an important part of protecting your mental health.

  • Finding small celebrations and focusing on goals are effective ways to build hope for the future.

From COVID-19 to the war in Ukraine to rising gas prices and labor shortages nationwide – there’s much to impact your mental health. Consequently, more people are seeking mental health services to cope with stress. In the past few years, Providence Oregon experienced a 25% rise in mental health encounters, increasing from 160,000 patient visits in 2018 to more than 200,000 in 2021.

Recently, we listened to a conversation between James Simmons, DNP, board-certified nurse practitioner and host of @asktheNP, and Robin Henderson, PsyD, chief executive of behavioral health at Providence Oregon, where they discussed the importance of safeguarding your mental health. Here are some highlights.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health is a recurring event produced by Providence Health System.

Q. For the folks who don’t know you, Dr. Robin, tell us who you are.

I’m chief executive of behavioral health at Providence Oregon, and I’m chief clinical officer at Work2BeWell. By training, I’m a licensed clinical psychologist. 

With so much going on in the world, particularly the war in Ukraine, how do we recapture some feeling of control?

There’s currently a sense of helplessness, and people are wondering what they can control. It’s a good time to think about what you’re doing to find that control. You can’t volunteer with the Ukrainian army, but you can donate to organizations that support assistance efforts.

You can also focus on other ways to give back. Volunteer in the local soup kitchen or at church. Finding ways to connect and give back is important to stay grounded and not getting overwhelmed.

For most families, this is the first time they’ve had to explain war to their kids. How do we talk to children about what’s going on?

It depends on your child’s age. Let’s start with screen time – images of war are everywhere. Small children – especially those under age 10 – don’t know what they’re seeing. It’s hard to grasp it’s all happening in another country. Many may think it’s happening across town, and they need help understanding they’re safe. Limit screen time and don’t constantly have the news on.

With adolescents, we need to talk about it. Discuss what we know and share our own experiences with war. Maybe your grandparents served in World War II or your spouse is retired from the military. Talking with our teens gives them perspective on our responsibilities as a society to address what’s going on.

Between the war and things closer to home, like rising gas prices, there’s a lot to process. How is this impacting our mental health?

It’s dragging us to a spot where we don’t feel great, and we’re overlooking self-care. Maybe you’re not getting enough exercise or you’re not disconnecting from technology. With all that’s happening globally, disconnecting can make you feel guilty – like you should always be doing something helpful. Caring for yourself so you can fulfill your responsibilities is doing something, though. We can’t get caught up in the dysfunction that causes us to develop learned helplessness.

How can we protect ourselves and not slide into learned helplessness?

Turn off the TV, give your brain a rest and get good sleep. Drink enough water and exercise. Whether it’s going to a spa for a facial or playing racquetball, those types of things contribute to self-care.

Prioritize spending time with loved ones. Discuss what’s happening but take breaks and talk about other things. If we don’t get a different perspective, we’ll get caught in a spiral that stresses us out and makes us lash out at our loved ones.

To help deal with the stress, is it okay to watch something mindless on TV?

Yes, let yourself live in the moment. There’s some great thoughtless reality TV out there. Let your mind escape elsewhere for a bit. It will give you that fresh perspective.

How can we pull back when we’re feeling overwhelmed?

Be mindful and intentional about what you’re doing. Focus on slow breathing several times daily. When you do, your brain can only think about breathing – that’s enough to interrupt a panic attack. Do it a few times daily with intentionality, and you’ll regain perspective.

It’s also a great time to start a gratitude journal. Even if it’s just one thing daily – maybe your morning latte – write it down. Over time, you can review the things you were thankful for. Again, it’s that perspective shift. Find things that resonate with you and add them to your life with intentionality.

Switching gears, how can we handle lingering COVID anxiety and the feeling we should still be masking?

We’re all going to make our own decisions in individual, real-time moments. If I’m walking into a place where I’m not comfortable with many unknown people, I’ll feel better with a mask. Or if I have a cold, I’ll wear one to keep others safe.

We need to get past the idea that masks are a political statement. It’s a healthcare issue. It’s a tool we’ve developed to help immunocompromised people function more normally in society. Hopefully, as mask mandates lift, people will remember this is solely a healthcare concern.

How should we respond to stressed, angry people?

Have grace. You never know what someone is going through. Maybe they lost a job or a loved one. If someone you know is super frustrated or angry, your first response should be asking what happened. Take a trauma-informed approach and understand anger is a secondary emotion coming from hurt and fear. For someone you don’t know, keep comments to yourself and exit the situation.

How can we feel comfortable planning for the future?

We need little doses of good things. Little celebrations, like graduations or birthdays, that we can engage in and enjoy. These things will rebuild our society, our families, and our communities. They’re pieces of hope that people will reengage in life and rejoin the workforce or school.

What are the last couple of takeaways you’d like to give everyone?

Find something to be excited about daily. Even more importantly, do something nice for someone just because. It doesn’t matter whether you do it anonymously. Find someone to share your gratitude with and do something nice for others.

Listen to the full podcast


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Related resources

Holistic approach to living well

Quick tips for challenging times

10 things you need in your bad-day toolkit

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.


About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Providence Mental Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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