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For Today’s New-Normal,
“Normal” Coping Skills Don’t Cut It

“Battle fatigue” is what Dr. Dan Chartier, psychophysiologic psychotherapist at Life Quality Resources, calls the stress many are experiencing at this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are the obvious factors: sickness, concern for or loss of loved ones, financial worries, balancing work and home life, and isolation. “And ‘isolation’ may be the most significant factor,” notes Dr. Chartier. “Because, for many people, it feels that they’re on their own in trying to deal with this overwhelming onslaught of stress.”

Dr. Chartier demonstrates one of many new biofeedback tools—the Muse Brain Sensing device—that can be accessed with a cell phone app.

The pandemic’s impact on mental and emotional health is reflected in many grim statistics, observes Dr. Chartier. “For example, a September Journal of the American Medical Association report highlighted a three-fold increase in depression symptoms from before the COVID-19 pandemic. And the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than half of adults surveyed reported that worry and stress from COVID-19 had affected their mental health.

“Marital discord has also increased, as evidenced by increased filings for separations and divorce,” he says. “And sales of alcoholic beverages are up in the last 12 months—suggesting that some have turned to self-medicating to cope. Those are all signs and symptoms of stress overload.”

The response to that overload, says Dr. Chartier is too often destructive. “We lash out, critically—at ourselves and the people with whom we live—expressing fears and frustrations that have built up over months of limited access to something other than the four walls of our own living space.”

That very isolation can lead to even more dangerous conflict, warns Dr. Chartier. “A recent New England Journal of Medicine article described the increased levels of intimate partner violence in 2020 as a ‘pandemic within a pandemic.’ According to this report,” he says, “one in four women, and one in ten men experience intimate partner violence. And, isolating at home with an abusive partner during a time of ever-increasing stress can escalate an already combustible situation.”

Getting Help Versus “Getting By”

Unfortunately, Dr. Chartier acknowledges, it may be some time before the pandemic is firmly in the rearview mirror. And, in these extreme and prolonged circumstances, normal coping skills may not be enough for the many who are struggling with personal pandemic battles. “This is not a time to go it alone,” he says. “Counseling and professional support, together with new over-the-counter, more accessible bio- and neurofeedback tools, can help bridge the gap in coping skills.

“Self-regulation is always the goal,” he notes. “That is the ability to control one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts—in other words, to cope with and respond to the challenges we face. But ‘self-treatment’ and ‘self-regulation’ are not the same. Trying to cope without self-regulation skills, and without support can be overwhelming.

“I often say to first-time patients: ‘how can I help you help yourself?’ Because that’s what it’s really about. It’s empowering, coaching, educating, and training them in ways that help them to be more self-reliant in restoring their balance.

“One of the keys to healing mentally and emotionally is having a person to talk to without fear of guilt or shame,” he explains, “someone who will listen fully and presently without being critical or negative. Such support—which is crucial to effective counseling—allows movement and reflection to occur, while providing a partner in figuring out the best way to manage stress.”

Beyond talking, Dr. Chartier finds that bio- and neurofeedback are invaluable tools in empowering patients to heal. “By giving patients objective information about their physical responses to stress,” he explains, “they learn to recognize their physical responses to stress and how it feels when they are controlling those responses.”

OTC Tools for Finding One’s Balance

“The ability to know where one is in space—physically and mentally—is a good description of balance,” he says. “And bio- and neurofeedback help people find that central, neutral position—that balance.”

In his practice, Dr. Chartier uses a variety of computer-based tools and programs to capture information about how a patient’s brain functions. “These tools allow us to clearly see the distinctive patterns of brain activity and the healing changes in those patterns resulting from bio- and neurofeedback therapy,” he explains.

“Technological advances have had a tremendous impact on our work at Life Quality Resources—providing us with increasingly sensitive tools for assessing brain activity, and guiding patients’ feedback work. And what’s especially exciting is the recent development of biofeedback tools for personal use—on a home computer and on tablets and smartphones. These accessible, easy-to-use tools make it possible to provide bio- and neurofeedback therapies even in a pandemic.

“All feedback devices,” explains Dr. Chartier, “have the capability of measuring biological information—in this case brain activity coming from the frontal lobes—and then representing that brain activity with some kind of sound or visual display. The Muse Brain Sensing device is one of the new tools we have found to be extremely useful. It is an EEG headband that works with a smartphone as a meditation assistant to measure how distracted or calm brain activity is. HeartMath is another personal feedback tool we use to help improve emotional well-being, by providing heart rate variability feedback.”

Dr. Chartier views these tools as a guidance framework to help people move away from habitual distress patterns into new patterns they can maintain with new skills. “I like data,” he admits. “These tools provide objective measures that let me and my patients know we’re moving in the direction of greater well-being. On the road to healing there are mile markers that can be measured—that I call GPS guidance points. And I use that expression to make the point that biofeedback isn’t some magic that zaps people and changes them. Rather, it gives them a directional beacon to move toward well-being and balance.

“It’s very much a behavioral approach that involves skills being learned and practiced, much like you would play a musical instrument. The more you practice, the better you get at controlling anxiety and so on.” To Dr. Chartier, that’s one legitimate “over-the-counter” approach to coping during this time of COVID-19.

But he also cautions that as a person uses biofeedback, other things may surface that they need to work through with a counselor or in therapeutic conversation. “It’s about helping people find their answers,” explains Dr. Chartier, “not me taking it on for them or telling them what to do, but encouraging them, working through letting go or adjustment to things that they no longer can do anything about.”