COVID-19 has brought on unprecedented emotional challenges for many.  It is more important than ever to learn how to care for your mental health.

It is undeniable that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a seismic impact on practically all aspects of our lives. The virus has upended the way we learn, the way we work, and the way we spend time with our loved ones. The uncomfortable truth is that we are not just dealing with the physical contagion of the virus. We are also grappling with the tough emotions surrounding it. Over the last several months, a serious mental health crisis has emerged in our country. This trend is clearly alarming, but perhaps what is more unsettling is that we do not yet know the long-term consequences the pandemic will have on our mental health for years to come.

A nation under distress

Emotional distress has more than tripled since the onset of the pandemic with 36% of Americans suffering from anxiety and depression, up from 11% pre-pandemic. Some experts attribute this uptick to “crisis fatigue” which has put us in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight. When we remain on high alert for a prolonged period of time, sustained elevated cortisol can wreak havoc on not only our body, but also on our mental health by triggering anxiety, depression, stress, and insomnia. In addition, surviving life-threatening illness or witnessing the suffering of others due to COVID-19 have increased the risk of developing lifelong posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How has COVID-19 contributed to mental distress?

For so many, 2020 has brought on a profound sense of loss. We have lost loved ones, educational opportunities, employment, milestones, recreational experiences, and personal freedoms. Social isolation causes a crushing sense of loneliness, and the economic downturn has shattered the financial security of millions. We are acutely anxious about getting sick and are restless about the fact that there is no clear end in sight. The stress of attempting to work from home - if we are lucky enough to be employed - while homeschooling our kids who are distressed themselves is almost too much to bear. It is no wonder we are struggling.

The role of social media during COVID-19

Throughout the pandemic, we have relied heavily on social media to stay connected and informed. Overnight, our accounts were crammed with minute-by-minute updates, recommendations, and narratives from healthcare organizations, epidemiologists, political leaders, family, and friends. But not all information we consume on social media is valid; misinformation and exaggerated false reporting on COVID-19 and its risks stoke the public’s confusion, anxiety, stress, and depression. What’s more, as our friends and family express their anxieties around the virus, our own anxieties get reinforced, keeping us in a loop of fear and uncertainty.

Supporting your mental health

Fortunately there are measures you can take to ease your mental burden and cope through the pandemic - and beyond - in a healthy way:

Þ   Take care of your body. Eating wholesome foods, getting plenty of exercise, and getting enough sleep are the cornerstones for improving not only physical health, but mental health as well. Feeling poor physically can greatly impact your mental state in a negative way.

Þ   Learn the facts. Avoid the rumors and seek out reputable, official sources to learn about COVID-19 and how it is transmitted. Arming yourself with the facts may go a long way in easing your mind and allowing you to feel more in control.

Þ   Take a break from social media. If you find yourself spending lots of time habitually scrolling through your feed to get your COVID-19 news fix, it is time to step away. Doing so may restore a sense of calm, improve your sleep, and enable you to focus on other important areas of your life. If you must check in, consider muting specific sources that trigger negative emotions.

Þ   Stick to a daily routine. As humans, we crave structure and can feel unfocused and unsettled without it. If you are spending long days at home, create a daily routine to instill a sense of normalcy: wake up and go to sleep at the same time, change out of bedclothes and wear daytime clothes upon awakening, incorporate exercise, start and end work at the same time, take planned breaks, and eat meals away from your desk.

Þ   Plan activities to look forward to. If your days all seem to run together, break up the monotony by planning simple, enjoyable activities you can be excited about. These may include family game night, cooking meals with your kids, working on a puzzle, or taking a long walk after work.

Þ   Reach out to friends and family. Just because we need to physically distance does not mean we need to be distant socially. There are many ways to safely connect with others. Enjoy virtual face-to-face chats, take a socially distanced walk, or pick up the phone.

Þ   Seek a mental health professional. If your mental distress is overwhelming, persistent, and interfering with your daily functioning, know that there is no need to suffer alone. Psychological services are widely offered virtually and can offer you additional approaches for how to cope.