Mental Health: The Overlooked Symptom of a Pandemic

mental health pandemic man

By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Originally published in The UpTake

When COVID-19 first hit the United States, many of us shifted to survival mode in our day-to-day lives. This headspace can help us push through difficult times but is not healthy in the long-term, and this is becoming evident in our mental health. The numbers speak for themselves: in a typical year, about 6.7% of Americans experience a depressive episode, but so far in 2020, 24% of Americans have had at least one depressive episode, and we are just over halfway through the year. Anxiety and stress-related symptoms are also on the rise.

The world we live in is unpredictable, but the past several months have really highlighted how little control we have over our environment. Our jobs, money, health, and relationships are threatened, and there is no end in sight for this invisible enemy. It’s terrifying.

There are some simple steps that I usually recommend when someone is experiencing anxiety or depression. An anxious or depressed brain wants to withdraw and isolate, which makes symptoms worse, so I encourage people with these issues to connect with their social supports. I tell them to get out of their home at least once a day, visit friends, go to places that make them feel happy, and spend time around other people.

Many people with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are preoccupied with illness and germs, so I work with them to resist these urges and spend less time and energy worrying about illness.

Does this sound like the exact opposite of what we are supposed to do to combat the spread of COVID-19? No wonder mental illness is on the rise! Everything that keeps us physically safe drains our mental resources. That is why it’s so important to be mindful of our mental health needs and find creative ways to meet them.

Connect with others (safely)

The first thing most people think of when trying to connect safely during a pandemic is video chats. But those working remotely are feeling overwhelmed with work-related calls already, creating what is being referred to as “Zoom fatigue.” Not to mention that not everyone has access to the equipment to make video calls.

Some experts have started recommending quarantine bubbles or pods. This refers to small groups of people who socialize with each other and no one else. In my practice, this has looked like small groups of families (usually neighbors) who agree to only physically interact with each other, giving their children in-person playmates again. If you can create a quarantine pod of people you trust, you can connect safely in real life.

girl on zoom with friends covid

Limit social media use

It can be tempting, when your access to the outside world is limited, to spend more time on social media. These sites can be wonderful for staying in touch with friends who live far away, or connecting with people who share your interests (especially if you live in a rural area), but the temptation to keep scrolling can do more harm than good.

Urban Dictionary defines a “scroll hole” as “…endlessly and mindlessly scrolling through your social media feed.” Sound familiar? We want to feel connected and informed, and social media offers limitless access to information, though not all of it is true or helpful. Keep yourself out of the scroll hole by choosing a set amount of time to spend on social media, and log off when that time is up. If you have trouble sticking to time limits, taking a deliberate break from social media can help, even for 24 or 48 hours. If you use a smartphone or tablet to access these sites, uninstalling those applications can reduce temptation to scroll during your commute or in the bathroom.

I encourage people to use mindfulness when they are on social media. As you look through the various posts, ask yourself, “What emotions am I feeling right now? Is this activity making me feel better or worse? Am I gathering important information that will help me or someone else in the long run? Am I becoming more connected to someone I care about right now?” When scrolling is unproductive, it’s time to sign off.

Find things you can enjoy safely

What would you be doing today if there wasn’t a pandemic? I am writing this on a Saturday, so I would probably go for a walk downtown and then spend some time reading in the local library or a coffee shop. To honor social distancing, I will walk in the field near where I live, download an ebook from my library, and read at home with my cats. It isn’t the same, but I can still get enjoyment out of these activities while maintaining social distancing.

Events might be cancelled, but things we enjoy are still available if we can find ways to do them while maintaining safety and social distancing.

forehead lady meditation

Manage your frustration with other people

We are all dealing with the stress of surviving during a pandemic differently. Although the internet makes more information available to us than ever before, it also promotes misinformation. Fact-checking and vetting sources is a skill that we all need to continue to work on.

Unfortunately, many people are choosing to downplay or ignore the severity of COVID-19. Many of us who are either high-risk or who have loved ones who are high-risk feel angry when we see crowded beaches and restaurants. We see countries like New Zealand praised for their quick and effective response and wish we could change things where we are.

When someone is struggling with anger management, therapists often tell them, “You can’t control what other people do; you can only control what you do.” What do you have control over? You can choose what you do and where you focus your energy. I can’t force anyone else to wear a mask, but I can make sure I’ve done everything in my power to keep my loved ones safe.

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