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Stories: One step at a time

A mental health conversation with Jennifer O'Donnell, Psy.D

Washington State’s stay-at-home order is scheduled to end May 4, and there’s no guarantee it won’t be extended for a second time. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed by uncertainty and fear as we all navigate this pandemic. But as cliché as it may sound, Jennifer O’Donnell, Psy.D, our clinical program director for behavioral health integration at Swedish, stresses the importance of taking this unprecedented period one step at a time.

This has been difficult for everyone, but we’ve been living in lockdown mode since March. Shouldn’t we have adjusted by now?

Not necessarily. It was one thing when there was a timeline for when it would end. But as this has gone on—when there's so much ambiguity and so much of this out of our control—it becomes really difficult for any of us to feel grounded.

What advice do you have for those of us who are having trouble coping?

Focus on things that are within your control. What are your meals for the week? What type of activities are you going to do with your kids? Who are you going to connect with via video chat? I encourage taking a step back, trying to stay as present as possible and focusing on those things that are within your control. Focusing on gratitude is important, too.

What are some concrete ways of practicing gratitude?

I promote a daily gratitude practice using the acronym GLAD. Each day name one thing you’re grateful for, one thing you’ve learned, one thing you’ve accomplished and one thing that gave you delight. And they don’t have to be big things. But what this does is help to keep you more present and grounded.

What can those who have lost their jobs do with their feelings of loss and anger?

We have every right to be angry and scared and sad and frustrated. But once you’ve processed those feelings, it’s important to shift gears and focus on what you can do. And if there isn’t a lot that you can actually do right now, what can you do for your mental health? What are the hobbies that you've wanted to try? What are the things that you can do to take advantage of this time?

This will end at some point, but what do I do if that’s not always easy to remember?

Try asking yourself, "When this is over, what do I want my life to look like?” Try to recognize the gifts that we got from this time and how you’ll carry them forward, whether it's a conscience decision to shop local or use public transportation to reduce carbon emissions. Most of all, though, do not hesitate to reach out for professional help. It's okay to ask for help. Even if it's just one or two sessions, it can make a world of difference to talk this through with somebody.

Need support to cope with these unprecedented events? We’re here to help. Swedish patients can call 1-800-SWEDISH to connect with a behavioral health provider.

PHOTO GALLERY: Take a virtual tour of our hospitals to see how our caregivers are responding to COVID-19 and working to reduce its spread.