Six Ways to Salvage Your Mental Health in the Pandemic

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.