It’s a tense time for most of us. COVID-19 is scary, and it’s rapidly changing the way we work, socialize, travel, access healthcare, exercise, shop, and live. Many people are feeling anxious, stressed, worried, and scared. Is the pandemic affecting your mental health? Here are five ways you could be impacted and practical solutions to help you get through it.
It’s normal and human to feel anxious right now. COVID-19 presents a threat to human health and the way we live. If you’re feeling anxious, your body and brain are responding to that threat exactly how they’re supposed to! That anxious feeling can be attributed to the fight or flight response – your body knows you might not be safe, and it’s gearing you up to respond.
Unfortunately, that stress response doesn’t have anywhere to go right now – we’re not yet able to fight the virus, and we have to respond to it not by fleeing, but by staying at home. That means your brain has readied you for battle, filled your tank with energy and adrenaline, and you have nothing to do with it. Not being able to control so many things all at once causes distress. It’s natural and understandable.
Sadness and grief
If you have lost a job or a loved one during the pandemic, you are likely to experience feelings of sadness or grief. This could also arise from the pain of missing out on important occasions such as birthdays, weddings, or funerals, which have been affected by the requirement to stay at home.
Anxiety can lead to hypervigilance, or a constant need to do what you can to assess the level of danger and ensure you are safe. This can manifest as obsessive behavior around hand-washing, cleaning the house, or constantly checking the news.
This is especially challenging for those with pre-existing obsessive-compulsive challenges, as the advice to increase hand-washing can be triggering for those who are trying to manage their compulsions.
Few humans can live in isolation for a prolonged period, as it is associated with negative feelings and can lead to illness. As social creatures, we need to connect, communicate, interact, and above all, be touched. The power of physical contact leaves a lasting impact on our wellbeing. It is comforting, therapeutic, and has a painkilling effect.
Unfortunately, to fight the war against COVID-19, we’ve all been asked to maintain social distancing or quarantine ourselves if we suspect we have had contact with the virus. The reduction in social interaction and activities with others can cause feelings of loneliness, especially for those who are staying at home alone.
Strain on relationships
On the other hand, if homes are crowded with family members, the environment can be stressful. Many families have pre-existing challenges and being at work or school normally helps them avoid these issues or defuse the tension. Clustering together at home for weeks can be a challenge in relationships that are already toxic or tense. Even those who have healthy and loving relationships may find themselves going a bit crazy after spending so much time together! This is completely normal and understandable when faced with the unprecedented conditions imposed by the pandemic.
Kids feeling stressed
Children and young people can certainly sense that there is something stressful going on, and they may have feelings of fear and anxiety. Common changes to watch for include excessive crying or neediness, returning to behaviors they have outgrown, difficulty with attention and concentration, or acting out. This has a double effect because parents become more stressed when they see their children suffering. Parenting during a pandemic is undoubtedly challenging, but it’s important to keep in mind that no matter how your child may react, it is natural and normal.
How to take care of your mental health
Keeping in touch with friends, colleagues, and loved ones is one of the most important ways to take care of your mental health. Whether you use social media, video chats, online games, or the good old-fashioned telephone, having regular social interaction can help you feel supported and is also a good way to help others. Checking in and showing concern for others not only helps the other person but has been shown to be a great way to ease stress and promote your own happiness and wellbeing too.
If you need someone to talk to outside of your social circle, call or email your doctor or primary care practitioner to ask about resources available to you.
It may seem obvious, but moving your body is one of the best ways to support your mental health. A plethora of studies show how exercise improves anxiety, stress, and depression, decreases inflammation, and improves psychological, physiological, and immunological functions. Exercise also improves self-esteem and boosts your mood, so it may be the single best thing you can do for your mental health right now.
Try going for a walk in your neighborhood, or simply exercise in the living room with an online video or fitness app.
Journaling is a highly recommended stress management tool for many reasons. There have been numerous studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of journaling for health, happiness, and stress. It’s also not only a simple technique but an enjoyable one and can be a powerful tool for examining and shifting thoughts from anxious and ruminative to empowered and action-oriented.
Simply spend five to 15 minutes writing about what’s on your mind and what’s bothering you. For each fear or concern, try to write at least one way in which you could think about it differently. Come up with at least one thing you can do right now that would improve your life and prepare you for what you fear. Putting your energy toward doing something positive can help you move out of a place of anxiety and toward a place of empowerment. Even if you don’t need the positive interventions you came up with, you have resources that can help you in your life, and you’ve distracted yourself in the process. You will come out of this brief exercise feeling mentally “cleansed” and empowered.
Keep yourself busy
Distract yourself from worrying by planning and doing other activities such as reading, hobbies, games, or puzzles. Learn a new skill online and try to cook, build, or create something. Try doing something productive like tidying up the garden, cleaning out the garage, or organizing the family photo albums.
On a daily basis, maintaining a routine for the family, and using this period to actively spend time with each other is important.
Creating a target for yourself does wonders for keeping you motivated and in a positive frame of mind. Whether you want to bake the perfect loaf of bread by next Saturday, or run to the park and back in record time by running three times a week, choose a goal and track your progress.
Limit your media consumption
You may want to binge on social media and news updates to keep abreast of developments, but it’s best to limit yourself to just one or two updates per day. Our brains are not conditioned to deal with anxiety-inducing information on such a frequent basis, so consume the minimum amount of media you need to stay informed and keep the news off when the kids are around.
Research shows that practicing slow, deep breathing helps to shut down the stress response and improve mental health. Lengthening your exhale is an easy way to get started with stress-relieving breathing exercises.
- Before you take a big, deep breath, try a thorough exhale instead. Push all the air out of your lungs, then simply let your lungs do their work inhaling air.
- Next, try spending a little bit longer exhaling than you do inhaling. For example, try inhaling for four seconds, then exhale for six.
- Try doing this for at least one minute.
Although we may feel stressed and fearful, the reality is that most of the time, we are physically safe. Practicing mindfulness helps draw us away from anxious thoughts and back into the present moment where we are comfortable, and our basic needs are provided for. Try mindfully observing your environment by mentally describing specific qualities of the room or space that is surrounding you. Look at and experience your environment like you are seeing it for the first time, and focus on “being where you are”, preventing the mind from running away with “what if” scenarios or irrational thoughts.
Support children’s mental health
For children, let them ask questions and give simple information framed in a positive way. Explain why changes are happening, such as why they need to wash their hands more often, or why they are not going to school. Check-in with them regularly, let them voice their thoughts, worries, and emotions, and let them know it’s ok to feel whatever they might be feeling. Work with your kids on solutions that will help them get through – what would make them feel safe and happy? What activities would they like to do at home with you or by themselves? Reassure them the people they love are doing everything they can to stay safe, and you’ll get through this as a family.
Be kind to yourself
Ultimately, give yourself a break. It’s a hard time for all of us, and we are all trying our best. You are probably kind, patient, and understanding with others, so try to turn some of this loving behavior toward yourself.
Keep in mind that whatever you are experiencing, there are most likely millions of others all over the world going through exactly the same thing. Speak out, tell your story, and connect. You are not alone!
-The UpWellness Team