The ways in which COVID-19 is impacting our physical health have become fairly clear over the past few months—but what about our mental health?
In the upcoming months, as we continue to see the curve flatten, the fog will clear and we will begin to see the profound impact that this pandemic is having and will continue to have on people’s mental health.
There are millions of people who, before this pandemic turned the world on its head, struggled with depression and other mental illnesses. Now, they are enduring forced social isolation, trauma, lack of support—which, for many, worsens symptoms of depression exponentially.
A world pandemic like COVID-19 is a collective trauma—meaning, every single one of us experiences some level of trauma as a result of this. Some worse than others. But we are all experiencing this trauma in some way. The effects of trauma are impacted by a few different factors. A few of those factors include an individual’s support system, an individual’s ability to make sense of what happened, and the ways in which the trauma impacts an individual’s sense of safety.
During social distancing, support systems are limited to online phone calls and zoom meetings, our sense of safety has been compromised, and it is quite difficult to make sense of a virus that came on so suddenly and is taking lives so rapidly. Basically, COVID-19 will undoubtedly result in a myriad of mental health challenges, when all is said and done.
My favorite definition of trauma is “a normal response to an abnormal event.”
What we are living through is abnormal—something that this world has never seen before, something that they weren’t prepared for, and something that will be written about in history books for years to come. Tom Hanks will probably star in a movie about it one day. It’s big, it’s scary, and it’s real.
However you individually respond to this event is completely NORMAL and okay. However you are feeling about it is okay. Many of us are scared, sad, confused, and grieving. We are cancelling weddings, graduations, birthday parties, etc. We are having babies in isolation and being asked to keep them from their extended families.
Many of us have lost grandparents, parents, and relatives to this virus. Many didn’t get to say goodbye to these relatives, or even attend a service offering closure. Our elderly are dying alone and sooner than anyone anticipated.
Many healthcare workers are enduring severe anxiety on a daily basis, their personal safety constantly at risk. They are seeing thousands of people die. Essential workers are being asked to risk their health on a daily basis, probably wondering daily if they have contracted the virus. Anxiety, panic, and fear have hi-jacked our country in a matter of weeks.
Individuals with Obessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may see an uptick in symptoms. Individuals battling addiction may be more tempted to relapse and less likely to get help or attend rehab. Individuals with Anxiety Disorders and Depression may also see a worsening in their symptoms.
These are only a few of the ways this pandemic is impacting us.
These losses and experiences will take time to process. Furthermore, it is safe to say that many of us are in fight or flight mode right now. When the body is in fight or flight mode, it has little room/energy to do anything else. We are in survival mode. A lot of grieving and processing of deep emotions may not happen until this thing settles down, until we begin to feel safe again.
So, what can we do now to mitigate long-term effects of this trauma?
While each individual’s experience of this trauma will be vastly different, there are a few things that every single person can do to begin the healing process and to take care of themselves during this time.
1. Talk about how you are feeling.
We do not have to pretend like everything is okay. We do not have to be positive or optimistic. We just have to talk about how we are feeling. Find a trusted friend, sibling, co-worker, family member, or trained therapist. Even though no one has the answers to why this is happening or when this will end, expressing your emotions can substantially help your healing from this trauma.
Most therapists have gone completely virtual, offering virtual therapy sessions and Telehealth. If you’ve never seen a therapist before, now may be the time to start. And your excuse that you “don’t have time” is no longer acceptable ;)
2. Tend to your basic needs.
Eat, sleep, shower, brush your teeth, and get exercise. It really matters. We need to take care of ourselves not only to boost our immunity, but to provide some groundwork to process our emotions. Skipping meals and skimping on your sleep will only make things that much worse.
3. Smash any expectations about how you “should” be spending this time isolating.
Feeling like we “should” be utilizing this time by losing weight, finishing home projects, learning a new language, etc. will only add unnecessary guilt that we do not need right now. If you are doing those things, then that’s great. If you aren’t doing those things, that’s great, too. Maybe you are just surviving each day—-and there is nothing wrong with that.
While I appreciate people’s ability to find ways to make their time at home more enjoyable and productive, let’s stop equating self-worth with productivity people! You are enough, even if you don’t complete the push-up challenge or paint your guest room ;)
4. Moderate your news consumption.
You don’t need to watch the news every minute of every day. What you pay attention to grows. The more fear/negativity you surround yourself, the more of it you will experience. Watch your regular morning segment, and try to leave it at that. There is no need for you to read every single article on COVID-19 (many of which have inaccurate information).
For those of us that don’t have the luxury of avoiding the fear/negativity of this pandemic (essential workers), carve out some time when you get home from your job to take space from it. I know this is easier said than done, but if you can force yourself to do something for even 10 minutes a day that will get your mind off of the pandemic, it will give your brain and body a much needed break.
5. Spend time outside in nature.
Now, more than ever, we have to rely on nature’s healing powers. It is one of the few things that we CAN do and obey social distancing. Go outside, sit in the sun, or go for a walk. The power that nature has to improve our mood and overall well-being is immeasurable.
6. Connect with friends and family through technology.
It really makes a difference. Sure, it’s not quite the same as a hug or spending time in person, but FaceTiming/zooming your family DOES help. I belly laughed so hard while FaceTiming my brother the other day— and had no clue how badly I needed that! Thank god for technology.
7. Remind yourself that this IS temporary.
We are going to get through this—there IS an end to it. Often times we feel that things will be like this forever, but they won’t. Socially distancing is temporary; it’s not forever. I like to have a mantra that I remind myself of when anxiety and fear creep in— “everything is temporary” is one of my favorites. Find a mantra and remind yourself of the pandemic’s temporary nature.