Art Mines recently took a mental health day and went “shopping” for some protein. The (Continental) Shelf was well stocked. Photo by Elizabeth Dyer

By Earle Irwin

Between post-Dorian recovery and COVID-19, many on Ocracoke are asking, “How much more can we take?”

While this article does not answer that particular question, here are some common wisdoms, offered from a mental health perspective, that may help you slow the accumulation of stress.

In times of crisis, our natural curiosity leads us to seek out as much information as possible. A worry that may be weighing on you: “What if I miss some crucial piece of information?” Yet over-exposure to crisis-oriented information increases stress levels and can result in a post-traumatic stress reaction that lasts long after the crisis itself has passed. Find one reliable source of information to consult, for example: and make that your go-to source. Avoid surfing the web to see what else is out there. Minimize your exposure to television news reports. A personal television news moratorium is an acceptable choice.

Ocracoke residents can feel good about how well they have dealt with the Dorian flood crisis through Community: You rescued each other, mucked out the flood damage together, found shelter for each other, shoulder-to-shoulder began rebuilding together. You have eaten meals together and worshipped together, among your countless efforts at fortifying community.

And now COVID-19 presents an extra whammy with scientific-based restrictions on physical community: No gatherings of people, stay home, maintain six feet of distance, don’t touch.

According to the American Psychological Association: “Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival.” The new challenge posed by COVID-19 precautions: How to be in community in innovative ways that do not involve entering each other’s personal infectious zones?

Social media during this time of social distancing is both a blessing and a curse. When other means of connection with friends and family have been put on hold, staying in touch via social media is a coronavirus-free method to communicate. However, another contagion—panic—can be spread by social media. Stay away from vitriolic sites or ones that sensationalize misinformation. Remember your mother’s admonition: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Descriptions of the countless online resources available are beyond the scope of this article. For the tech-savvy, a wealth of social media platforms (Skype, Facetime, Zoom, Lifesize, etc.) can allow you to set up virtual meetings with the folks you are used to meeting face-to-face. Not all of us have the technological wherewithal or the devices to make such connections happen, but just about everyone has a phone. Make phone calls to stay connected to neighbors, family and friends, especially those in isolation who have few other contacts with the outside world.

Spring is here and the sunshine beckons us to go outside. Social distancing is much more readily practiced in wide open spaces. Sit on your porch or stoop and wave at passersby. Take a walk with a friend or family member—six-plus feet apart, not hand-in-hand. Put on gloves, grab a garbage bag, take a walk through the village or seashore and pick up trash. This activity works as a family outing, with adequate instruction about avoiding sharp objects. Go fishing. Stand on the beach and inhale restorative lungsful of fresh sea air while envisioning the salt air working wonders on your immune system.

Families are posed with an additional challenge, with children home from school. The adults in their lives are big, unreasonable meanies who only want to keep them from having fun. Yet, the COVID-19 restrictions that you enforce upon your children are acts of love, and when they survive into adulthood because you imposed them, they may someday come to appreciate your foresight.  Distract them with the endless free online resources that are available. Take them to the beach. Fly a kite.

Likely you are spending more hours at home than you are used to. To combat discouragement, rather than dwelling on the crisis or worrying about matters over which you have no control, find positive pursuits to occupy your mind. Remember those tasks that have been niggling in the back of your head—that you’ve always wanted to get to, but never seem to have the time? This period of shut-down presents the gift of time to accomplish some of those long-postponed tasks. Read a book. Walk on the beach. Sort your shell collection. Learn a second language. Finish a project or learn a new craft. Dust off the board games and jigsaw puzzles. Challenge yourself to cook a tasty meal using ingredients already on your shelves. Call a friend. Write a letter.

Religious or spiritual practices can fortify you through times of crisis. A previous crisis of magnitude—the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States—has been widely studied by psychologists seeking to understand what helps people cope with large-scale trauma. Among what has been learned: Ninety percent of Americans coped by turning to religious or spiritual practices. People who used positive religious coping survived with greater optimism, less anxiety and higher levels of positive emotion. If you are a person of faith, draw upon resources available through your faith community. Whatever your spiritual practice—now is the time and you have the time. Ocracoke churches are coming up with innovative ways to include parishioners in worship while honoring social distancing. 

Stay focused on what you can do, redirect your thoughts and actions there, away from fretting about what you can’t do. We singlehandedly cannot solve this global crisis, but we can all wash our hands. We can social-distance and avoid direct contact with others. We can all cover our coughs by coughing into our elbow or a tissue. We can keep our hands off our faces. We can wash our hands.

We can look for the positives around us: the sunrise, the birds singing, a friend we haven’t heard from in a while calls. These positives are points of focus that we can use to steer ourselves away from fruitless worries.

The Ocracoke Interfaith Relief & Recovery Team, with funding provided by the Outer Banks Community Foundation, brought me to the island to provide mental health support and education to residents, at no charge.

Please consider me as a resource as you deal with the uncertainties of COVID-19. Call or text 703-863-1243.


Earle Irwin. Photo: C. Leinbach

Earle Irwin, a retired clinical nurse specialist, is on Ocracoke through July to help islanders cope with Dorian aftermath and any other issues they may be dealing with.

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