By Susie Wilson
COVID-19 is disrupting our lives in unprecedented ways — inciting a wave of anxiety across the globe. Even before the pandemic reached a tipping point last week, more than a third of adults surveyed said that coronavirus was having a negative impact on their mental health. More than half were worried about losing their jobs — and even more, feared someone in their family would get sick. And as this crisis continues, we can expect those numbers to surge.
On top of the fear of contracting COVID-19, millions are living with growing financial anxiety as businesses shutter and 401ks plummet. Parents across the country are struggling to work without the support of child care. The elderly and sick are finding themselves more alone than ever. This is to say nothing of our frontline health workforce, who are working 15+ hour shifts under increasingly hazardous conditions.
Our collective stress has the potential to become long-term, sustained strain as the fallout of this pandemic ripples through society. In that sense, the mental and emotional toll of COVID-19 is as much a threat to public health as the virus itself. Chronic, unrelenting stress — particularly the kind that comes from the loss of meaningful work, financial hardship, or constant exhaustion — is tough on our minds and our bodies. It causes wear and tear that can trigger a cascade of adverse health outcomes like heart disease, obesity, and stroke. It can also induce people to consume more alcohol and drugs with further adverse effects on their health.
Loneliness is another social determinant of health. Studies show that people who lack strong social connections often have disrupted sleep patterns, more inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones. It can weaken their immune systems, reducing their ability to fend off disease. So, as we in the public health community work to keep people safe amid the coronavirus pandemic, we must prioritise mental and emotional health, too — especially for those who are already prone to depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
And all of us should take extra time and care for ourselves during this time of upheaval. Of course, many of our go-to's for coping with stress — going to the gym, grabbing dinner with friends, watching sports or attending church — are off-limits for the foreseeable future. But in the meantime, there are lots of things we can do to improve our well-being.
1. Practice physical distancing — but not social isolation. Thanks to technology, there are countless ways to stay close to our loved ones while keeping a healthy physical distance. Check-in on the family over Skype or FaceTime, call up old friends or respond to those emails you’ve been meaning to get around to for weeks (or months). The more connected we stay with one another, the better off we’ll all be.
2. Stay mindful and active. Keeping our minds and bodies busy is key to overall wellness, especially in times of crisis. Make it a point to engage in activities that bring you joy, whether that’s taking a long walk, trying a new recipe, or practising a musical instrument. Do try to resurrect that old hobby that somehow got lost in the rush of a busy life or learn a new language that you always wanted to. There are also hundreds of apps dedicated to yoga, mindful meditation, home-workouts, and other activities to help you stay calm and present.
3. Limit news consumption. It’s important to get accurate, up-to-date information throughout the pandemic, but binge-reading or watching the news can negatively impact your well-being. Limit the amount of time you spend consuming social media or news that doesn’t make you feel better. And remember that it’s okay to unplug for a while.
4. Create a new routine to fit your new normal. In this time of uncertainty, a structure can alleviate our anxiety and give us a sense of control over our day-to-day lives. Try to stick to a set schedule, with a consistent sleeping and wake-up time each day and having regular and nutritious meals. And set a few manageable daily goals for yourself.
5. Seek help when you need it. It’s important to reach out if you’re feeling overwhelmed. That can mean talking to friends or family or someone else you trust. It can also mean engaging with a mental health professional. It may not be feasible to see a therapist in person right now, but many insurers like Medicare are expanding coverage for telehealth services. There’s no question that the coming weeks and months will be difficult, and the most trying times are still ahead. No one can say for certain how long this pandemic will last or when our lives will get back to normal. Some people are even predicting a new normal!
But if we take good care of ourselves and each other, we can emerge from this crisis more resilient — and, just maybe, mentally stronger than ever before.