At this point, it may have been a while since you last stepped on a plane, but it’s likely you still remember the adage about masks. During their safety spiel, flight attendants always tell you to put on your own mask before helping others. For many women, this metaphor should be applied to everyday life.
Women often identify as caretakers, juggling multiple roles. They are there for their children, partners, friends and aging parents. As COVID-19 has spread, thereby changing work, school and childcare scenarios, they’ve also become teachers in between their own meetings and responsibilities.
“Caretakers want to do and be everything to the ones they love, so when anxious feelings come up, they’re often pushed aside to make room for all the external pressures and needs,” says Dr. Claire Evans, a primary care physician at Tryon Medical Partners. “I often hear women say they’re at a loss for what to do because they’ve been ignoring themselves and their symptoms for so long that everything has finally bubbled over.”
The convergence of an increase in need for mental health treatment and May being Mental Health Awareness Month has inspired Dr. Evans and her Tryon colleagues to bring this conversation to the forefront in a Facebook Live chat May 19: Tryon Talks – Mental Wellness in a Pandemic.
“Humans don’t like the unknown and right now it’s really hard to predict what will happen next with our careers, childcare and even how and when we leave the house,” Evans says. “We’re all in this holding pattern and people are having stress and anxiety like never before.”
Women Have Always Faced Unique Mental Health Challenges
Despite the exacerbating nature of the current pandemic on all our stress levels, women have always faced unique mental health challenges:
In the Workplace – Women tend to be the caregivers at home, leading to added guilt and pressure when balancing that with a career.
“I often hear women express dual guilt,” Evans says. “There’s guilt over not being home to care for children, while at the same time feeling these workplace perceptions that their home life is taking away from their productivity.”
Beyond that, women report to Evans feeling disengaged from their male counterparts who don’t share the same pressures. Not to mention, she says, the unique challenge of feeling physically intimidated in a way men often don’t.
Thanks to Our Hormones – Hormones are a “lifelong battle for women,” Evans says, from puberty to menopause. Emotions change during menstrual cycles from feelings of worry all the way to diagnosed premenstrual dysphoric disorder.
During menopause, women often feel stress about the changes their bodies are going through. Hot flashes can cause difficulty sleeping and the lack of sleep causes irritability and anxiety, which, in turn, causes guilt. It’s a cycle that builds on itself.
“Our physical and emotional stresses go hand-in-hand,” Evans says.
Throughout Pregnancy – “Pregnancy itself comes with heightened emotions and anxiety as moms worry about their health and the health of the baby – not to mention the new layer that COVID-19 introduces,” says Dr. Evans.
Due with her first child in July, Dr. Evans brings a unique perspective to this conversation.
“Pregnant women are already at higher risk because of their limited lung volume,” she says. “During the pandemic, there’s the added worries about how many people can be in the delivery room and if family can travel, plus financial insecurities in an ever-changing job market.”
Listen to Yourself – And Your Support System
Dr. Evans encourages women to listen to their bodies and pay attention to signs like:
- Changes in appetite
- Disruptions and changes in sleep schedule
- A lack of interest and pleasure in doing things you typically enjoy
- Negative feelings about yourself
Often, we may not recognize these things until they become extremes, so taking the time to focus on yourself and identify issues before they’ve become overwhelming is important. Sometimes, those closest to us will recognize these changes before we recognize them in ourselves. If friends, family and your support network are noticing things that bring them pause, listen to their feedback without judgement.
Asking for Help Is a Sign of Strength
Women often self-identify as strong-willed, which can lead to feelings that not being able to handle mental health on their own is a sign of weakness. Evans touts that this is not the case at all, and that reaching out when you need help is a sign of strength because you’ve recognized when you’ve hit the limits of what you can control.
“I want to take away the stigma of talking about your mental health,” Evans says as her public conversation about mental wellness on Facebook Live grows closer. “People should feel comfortable talking to their primary care physician. We treat patients as a whole. Mental and physical health work together.”
Evans says she plans to spend additional time with patients whose appointments are mental health-focused, especially the first time so a sense of comfort can be reached and there’s no rush when talking about deep feelings and emotions. Working at an independently-owned practice like Tryon Medical Partners allows her this flexibility, rather than having to stay within the appointment time limits that exist at large medical systems.
During her pregnancy, Dr. Evans has exclusively been seeing patients via virtual visits where she’s found herself often treating mental health concerns.
“Virtual visits are such a resource for a variety of concerns, but especially for mental health,” Evans says. “They reduce a great number of barriers. Patients are able to speak with me from their own comfortable space at home, under their own control.”
When scheduling virtual appointments, Evans says, patients have complete control, choosing times that are most optimal for them and being able to speak to a doctor, even if they can’t leave work, and can schedule around their lunch or break times.
During this ongoing pandemic that is sparking overwhelming feelings of anxiety, stress and depression, Mental Health Awareness Month is just another great reason to continue the conversation with your support systems, your primary care physician or just by listening or posing questions during Tryon’s Facebook Live event.
“I often find that women are less likely than men to internalize their feelings,” Dr. Evans says. “Finding ways to continue surrounding yourself with your support system is important. I’m part of a Facebook group of female physicians and, even though I don’t know them all personally, there’s this sense of comradery. We lift each other up. Find your support system, focus on your outlets and lean on your resources.”