Updated: Sep 18, 2020
At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are experiencing a sort of grief limbo called “ambiguous loss,” as we reminisce about the mundane normalcy of life we’ve lost over the past 6 months. The “loss” we’ve experienced includes so many aspects of our general way of life: the regularity of in-person social connections, our daily freedoms and rituals, normal access to education or medical care, and even trust in our governing bodies. In addition, this feeling of loss is rendered ambiguous, because these things we’ve grown attached to aren’t gone forever, but rather have been taken away from us without permission and without a clear resolution.
So, it should come as no surprise that we are experiencing more mental health issues than ever before. According to the advocacy group Mental Health America, over 88,000 people in the U.S. had developed anxiety or depression as a direct result of the pandemic back in May. Since then, that figure has likely climbed, as our emergency phase has become chronic, and our collective mental and physical “surge capacity” has become depleted. As a science journalist described in a recent story: “Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.”
Surge capacity can be drawn on to stay afloat for acute periods, but it’s not viable for the preservation of mental health in the long run. For this reason, we must turn to a new set of coping strategies to help us survive, and at times even thrive through the invisible and ongoing destruction of this pandemic. We are all grieving our former lives and residing in a world of fear, and the negative emotions that accompany these dire circumstances can be widespread: anxiety, depression, disappointment, anger, exhaustion, hopelessness, helplessness, boredom, and burnout. What we do with these emotions is within our control.
Here are six things you can do to boost your resilience and improve your mental health as the pandemic drags on:
1. Talk to a friend.
Without the social systems we used to rely on — from schools, churches, and community centers to bars, gyms, and sports — many of us are experiencing a deep-seated loneliness. It’s important not to allow the mandate of physical distancing turn into feelings of social isolation, which is bad for both our physical and mental health. As a Washington Post article explained: “Loneliness creates a kind of toxic chain reaction in our body. It produces stress, and the chronic release of stress hormones suppresses our immune response and triggers inflammation.” Researchers found that positive social relationships gave people a 50% greater chance of surviving over time compared to people with weak social ties. We need to maintain social connections outside our immediate family unit as much as possible to ward off symptoms of loneliness.
When you’re feeling down or vulnerable, putting yourself out there and striking up a conversation can be a struggle. Picking up the phone might be the last thing you feel like doing, but try to talk to at least one friend, family member, or neighbor each day. The nature of a pandemic gives us a good excuse to check in with loved ones. Call a cousin or school friend you haven’t spoken to in a long time, check in with a neighbor who is outside your social circle, or make small talk with a stranger in the grocery check-out line. Take it a step farther by joining a Zoom happy hour or a virtual book club. Especially if you’re a natural extrovert, tapping into a sense of connection and community with others will make you feel energized.
2. Lower your expectations.
Accept that life is different right now and that you might not be the best version of yourself. Allow yourself a few days to wallow in sadness and accomplish nothing beyond the bare minimum, letting the laundry pile up and the to-do list sit untouched. Occasionally, this time-out from life’s responsibilities might be necessary. But after you’ve taken a hiatus and recharged your mental well-being with plenty of downtime (more on that below), pull yourself out of the rut and direct your renewed energy to something constructive. As with most pandemic-induced circumstances, this letting go might be especially challenging to Type A types who crave constant control.
Though you should expect less of yourself at times when you’re feeling the strain of the pandemic, you don’t want to languish in a state of apathy. You can improve your mood simply by accomplishing tangible tasks that satisfy a natural need to plan for the future and experience in the moment. Tackling home improvements that have been on the backburner (e.g. replacing dead batteries and lightbulbs) or setting up your family for success in some way for the fall (e.g. creating a dedicated school space for remote learning children) will give you a renewed sense of productivity and hope for a fresh start.
3. Discover (or rediscover) something you love.
Everybody needs downtime, but the amount and type varies from person to person widely. Some people feel fulfilled by reading a book for hours, while others need to decompress with a quick TV show. Creative activities like painting, gardening, cooking, and DIY house projects have become very popular in recent months. What gives you energy now might be different than during the pre-pandemic era, and it might take a period of adjustment to figure out what replenishes your energy in your new rhythm of life. Now is a perfect time to do some self-discovery and find what ignites your soul.
Though self-care is often offered as a prescription for feeling better, so many of our standard self-care outlets are unavailable or unappealing given the risk of exposure. Going to the movies, having a nice dinner out, getting a pedicure, enjoying a massage, grabbing a coffee with friends, or participating in group fitness — once simple pleasures of life — are now either unsafe or overcomplicated. We have to get creative with how we approach self-care in pandemic times. Setting up a “home theater,” getting takeout from a favorite restaurant, or creating an “at-home spa” in your bathroom could have the same psychological benefits. If you turn on the TV or hop around the internet, be sure to steer clear of the relentless COVID-19 news cycle, especially before bedtime.
4. Shift your mindset.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the media has been flooding us with negativity. It’s all too easy to let that information (COVID-19 spread, death toll, political feuds, etc.) consume and overwhelm you. Instead of allowing negativity to infect your thought process, you can start to shift your own thinking toward gratitude for the good. Rather than fixate on the things you are missing, consider all the basic needs you do have: your health, your home, your family/friends/community, etc.
Search for the silver lining in your situation, whether that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend more time with your children or a much-needed break from the daily grind. Remember that many people are in the same boat, and it’s ok to feel like you are flowing with the tide. Even those who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, who have lost loved ones to the disease or lost their job, can be grateful if their family is currently healthy or they have resources to usher them through this period of unemployment. By shifting your mindset to the positive in the present moment, you will build resilience skills that are critical for keeping your mental health in check throughout the pandemic.
5. Help others.
Though it may sound cliche, you can actually help yourself by helping others. After historic natural disasters, volunteering has shown to decrease anxiety and provide a sense of purpose. From the destruction of Hurricane Katrina to the devastation of 9/11, post-crisis periods bring about countless acts of generosity and support. Though we are still mid-crisis, we have an opportunity to come together and build resilience as a community.
Many of us have been floundering in a state of helplessness throughout the pandemic as the decisions of local and state government officials and behavior of neighboring citizens have all taken place outside our control. Doing for others provides a sense of control and purpose. Offering to go grocery shopping for an elderly neighbor or sending cards to a family member in a nursing home could not only brighten someone’s day but also fill your own resilience tank with social support and connection. Research has shown that a loving, helpful life tends to lead to a happier, healthier, longer one. Kindness and happiness are contagious!
6. Move your body.
Though physical activity is the final point, it may be the most important. Endless studies have shown that exercise reduces stress levels and boosts immune functioning. But now there is further evidence that exercise can reduce the likelihood of anxiety and depression. A survey of pregnant and postpartum women in the first couple of months of the pandemic found that those who engaged in moderate intensity physical activity had significantly lower scores for both anxiety and depression than those who did not. Remaining active during the pandemic could be your first line of defense against pandemic-induced mental health issues.
Outdoor activities such as walking, running, and bicycling can lift your mood while allowing you to maintain a safe social distance from others. With the plethora of virtual options that have cropped up recently, it couldn’t be easier to exercise without leaving the house or hitting the gym. To name a few, you can access fitness classes through apps like Peloton, Orange Theory, Aaptiv, Bulldog Yoga, and SHRED, as well as free workouts on YouTube. Practicing yoga from the tranquility of your own home is especially beneficial for your mental health, since on top of the physical perks, it often incorporates mindfulness, breathing, and meditation exercises. Daily physical activity also helps you sleep better, which is critical for maintaining a full resilience tank.
Taking these six steps to bolster your social, mental, and physical well-being will, in turn, equip you with lifelong skills that can uplift you in times of crisis like the ongoing pandemic. If you’ve tried these self-help strategies and are still struggling, please consult with a mental health professional. Remember: we are all in this and will get through this together!
With Warmth and Wellness,
Your EmmaWell Team