The Epidemic People Aren’t Talking About

It seems wherever you turn people are talking about Covid-19. With millions of individuals infected around the world, over one hundred thousand dead in my own country, and the seeming inevitability of a second wave, that’s to be expected. Nothing like it has ever happened before in our living memory, I suspect it will permanently change the views and values of my generation and have long-lasting consequences even on those not infected by the virus. But much fewer people are talking about a concurrent, and arguably more insidious pandemic – the mental health toll of Covid-19.

As a public health professional with over a decade of experience working both domestically and abroad and an aspiring psychiatrist, I want to start talking about it. This is the first part of a series discussing mental health issues during the Covid-19 pandemic. Let’s all hope it’s a short series.

To start, how can a virus impact our mental health? Don’t worry it isn’t a newly discovered symptom of Covid-19 but instead a result of the society-changing impact it has had in the last few months. Almost every individual has been personally impacted by Covid-19 in some form – from those who have been infected and faced grueling hospital stays, to those who have lost loved ones to the infection. Or those who worked tirelessly as frontline healthcare workers in unsafe conditions to save others when they could, to the essential workers going out and facing the dangers of every day to stay financially afloat, or those who lost their jobs and somehow have to get by. And even those of us like me who were at-risk and stayed as isolated as possible to avoid catching or spreading it. Each group has experienced unique struggles and thus may feel differently, but as more of the literature is starting to reflect, we are all feeling some sort of way – and it is not good. Staying in prolonged periods of hypervigilance or crisis can detrimentally impact the human mind. This can be further exacerbated by other factors such as the real fear of contagion to oneself or others, the stresses of unemployment, changes in employment, or financial hardship, and the loneliness of social distancing and self-isolation among many other considerations.

Professional agencies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the American Psychiatric Association and even the news media have reported spikes in negative feelings and behaviors during this period for those reasons. But we are only really beginning to understand how these traumatic population-level events impact individuals. Little academic work has been done on the subject, in part because there are few possible comparison cases but scouring the web, the published literature, and talking to experts has helped me compile this list of seven suggestions that may help you address and limit some of the negative feelings you may be struggling with.

  1. Maintain a Routine – Even something as simple as waking up and going to bed around the same time, getting dressed for the day, and making your bed can help convince your brain that you are safe, provide some purpose, and help you become more productive.
  2. Exercise – Not only will this help with any extra snacking you may be enjoying, but it may help burn off some extra energy, reduce anxiousness, improve sleep, and help you stay fit. Extra points if it helps you get outside responsibly and safely.
  3. Limit Media Consumption – It’s a double-edged sword being well informed during a pandemic. It may even feel irresponsible at times to turn off the news station but consider doing that to give yourself a break from the negative news of the world. If you can, only check the news once or twice a day but take breaks to enjoy other content that can improve your mood.
  4. Talk to Others – Almost everyone has gotten accustomed to Zoom during these last few months. While it can be a huge benefit for students and professionals, don’t underestimate the good of an old-fashioned phone call or a text to friends and loved ones. Consider hosting an online game or movie night – many platforms such as Netflix Party have sprung up to facilitate it! If you can, reach out to two or three people in your social network each day. We are all struggling so this may help curb your loneliness and help your loved ones.
  5. Don’t Forget to Breathe – This all can be overwhelming and sometimes we forget to just breathe. We carry the tension of it all in our jaws and shoulders and lock our bodies up stiff. Try incorporating meditation, Tai chi, grounding, or any other similar mindfulness practice into your daily routine where you are able.
  6. Mourn – The truth is that this list of suggestions would be far from complete if it didn’t include some level of mourning for those who have lost their lives, for those in danger, for the special things we all had planned and were looking forward to, and more. It’s okay to feel your feelings, whatever they are. Make time for them too in all of this when you can or they may spill over resulting in burnout and emotional fatigue. Work to understand your feelings and take steps to feel better when and how you can.
  7. Consider Making Time for Therapy – Even the most well-intentioned or well-researched list of suggestions for these trying times may not be enough to address your needs. There is no shame in needing extra support in your life, especially during this unprecedented time. Consider reaching out to a healthcare professional if you feel you are especially struggling. A list of potentially helpful resources is included at the end of this article.

Some of these suggestions I can personally attest to the efficacy of through my use. But they may not be the right fit for you. If you find something that works, share it with us here. And stay safe out there. We are all in this together and we will pull through.

With this introduction in place, next time we can talk about Feelings of Isolation in the Era of Zoom.

 

Mental Health Resources:

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