While it’s always important to pay attention to your mental health, times of stress and uncertainty, such as during a pandemic, can make it especially vital. Checking in with yourself and taking steps to remain mentally healthy during this time may be more important than ever. Dr. Irakli Mania, Psychiatrist and Medical Director of Keystone Behavioral Health, has tips for readers about taking care of their mental health during this stressful time.
Fear And Worry
What’s happening around us is unprecedented. We have no experience in dealing with something like this. The future is uncertain and this creates a lot of anxiety and fear, which has spread across the globe because fear is more contagious than this virus. An American Psychiatric Association poll suggests that more than half of Americans seriously worry about this virus from many different perspectives, be it health or financial stability.
Some predict a new wave of increasing burnout and mental health problems because of this pandemic. Just like with the virus we need to be “cautiously optimistic.” We have a reason to be hopeful because humans are extremely resilient and we can get through this by using our natural adaptation abilities. The need for being cautious comes from the fact that we don’t want to meet this wave unprepared financially or in terms of available services.
Our mental health is vulnerable because we have an old brain in a new world. Even though our evolutionary reaction to stress is helpful short-term, it is toxic with severe and prolonged stress. So, in addition to the virus and the environment, our body is against us because of the duration of this particular stressor. We do however have the power to change our thoughts and behaviors, which according to science largely determine our health and happiness. Metaphorically speaking, our thoughts, behaviors and coping skills will be our “Personal Protective Equipment” against developing mental health problems during this pandemic. As a saying goes, “It’s not the load that breaks us but how we carry it.”
Everybody deals with stress differently and it is difficult to come up with a recommendation that fits everyone. But there are some things that anybody could do in order to strengthen their mental health. Some of these would be old and tried ways to deal with stressful times but some may be new. Plato said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” We have a need to come up with creative ways to live under this current stress.
We often hold answers within us. We need to think about previously stressful events from our own past and recall how we dealt with it. This may be the best way because it has been tried, and it has been tried by ourselves. One of the best things that we can do is to stay connected. Social connectedness has repeatedly been found to be the most important factor in both happiness, and in grief. We are social animals and isolation is the worst punishment one can endure. Psychiatrists around the world have been uncomfortable with the term “social distancing.” What is meant is physical distancing and we have to try and maintain social connectedness, be it via social media, phone or video chats.
Altruism, helping others, is one of the tried methods for improving self-esteem and mood in general. We don’t even need to do something special. Sometimes being compassionate, merely listening and giving warm words could be enough. Also, let’s be grateful for what we have. By nature, our attention in daily life is drawn to threats but with some effort we can change this thinking and try to identify positive things in our lives, however small they may be.
We need to do things that have a calming effect on us. For some it may be a prayer, mediation or mindfulness, and for others it could be music or exercise. It is important to do these things regularly as opposed to only when you feel stressed out. Purposeful and meaningful activities bring more satisfaction. Successful people turn challenges into opportunities. Being home or having idle time does not have to be a curse. Let’s remember things in our lives we could not find time for before the pandemic, like a book we always wanted to read or a project we could never finish. One could also invest this time in learning something new.
We cannot undervalue the importance of a healthy lifestyle during this period. Not only will it improve our immune system to help fight off this virus, but this is also essential for our mental well-being. This includes regular exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep and avoiding drugs and alcohol.
In addition to the pandemic, we are facing the “infodemic” and this can be toxic. We need to stay informed but excessive information can provoke and feed anxiety. There is also a danger that people may take information out of context and self-medicate, which can lead to potentially serious problems. Nobody should make medical decisions without consulting their doctor.
Seeking Professional Help
If we are struggling despite our best attempts to cope, we may need to seek a professional opinion. Having a mental health problem is not a sign of weakness. In fact, one of our most important coping mechanisms is the ability to ask for help. This could help significantly improve one’s quality of life.
Individuals with existing mental health problems will need to continue their treatment, be it medication or counseling. There are several issues during this pandemic that are specific to psychiatry. For instance, fever and flu-like illnesses can increase the levels of certain medications and dosage may need to be adjusted to avoid toxicity. Some medications we commonly use in psychiatry can depress the central nervous system including the breathing center, and may complicate the disease course of a respiratory illness like COVID-19.
Please stay positive. Nietzsche said “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Indeed, sometimes we worry about post-traumatic stress but often we have post-traumatic growth. If we do the right things, we could come out of this gracefully. We will be more experienced and have better tool sets. We will have different and possibly better values, which may allow us to enjoy life even more.
This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.