During the COVID-19 pandemic, the temporary closing of schools and businesses, and the governmental restrictions to stay at home and social distance, I am sure we have all heard endless ways to stay healthy. Wash your hands, wear face masks, stay six feet apart from everyone, get more vitamin D, don’t meet in groups of more than ten people, oh, and in case you forgot, wash your hands. However, I rarely see advice or guidelines provided on how to stay mentally healthy during this time. In honor of the end of mental health awareness month, I want to focus on mental health during the coronavirus, and how to maintain a healthy state of mind. Over the last few months, we have been asked to isolate ourselves, social distance, and spend most of the time at home. As a result, the mental health of Americans is decreasing rapidly. According to William Wan from the Washington Post, emotional distress hotlines have increased by 1000 percent, online therapy has increased by 65%, and suicide rates are increasing too (Wan, 2020). I think these statistics have much to do with the rates of unemployment, social distancing, and the loss of sales for small business owners.
Now that I have addressed the situation, I think it is important to look at the cause behind each problem, and the available solutions. The biggest obstacle is social isolation. Humans are social creatures. While some of us are more introverted or enjoy spending time alone, there are very few people in this world who are purely antisocial. Even someone like myself, who may not have a plethora of friends, misses even the small interactions from seeing people at school, work, stores, etc. My advice is to make sure you are still finding some daily social interaction. Facetime a family member that you need to catch up with. Have a conversation with the cashier at the grocery store. If you are healthy, meet with some friends for a 6 feet apart picnic, walk, or bike ride. Sit down with the people you live with and truly get to know them. I personally realized that there is still so much I don’t know about some of my own family members, and I have enjoyed using this time to become set to them. Do what it takes to maintain communication, or take on a challenge to get back in touch with people you haven’t seen or talked to in a long time.
Another problem that results from social isolation, is the ability to even physically change locations. Luckily, the state of Utah has not been as restrictive as other state governments in allowing people to leave their homes, but besides the park, the mountains, or the quick grocery run, there are not many more places to go. While I acknowledge that everyone is different, some of the days I feel most mentally healthy are when I can go to the gym, school, then work, maybe run a few errands, or go out to dinner, a movie, or to a friend’s house. I think there is something important about being able to change your scenery, and get out of the house, even if it is as simple as heading to a store. With that said, be creative when it comes to places to go. Go to the park, a campsite, hiking in the mountains, visit your family (as long as you are both healthy), or start using your own backyard if you have one. I have started reading outside, playing four square with my family, and going outside to do handstands. Spend lots of time outside, being active, strengthening your immune system with vitamin D, and getting fresh air.
Not being able to leave the house is bad enough, but another major problem with social isolation and the pandemic is not being able to take care of specific mental health needs. For example, before the pandemic, I was getting back into going to the gym daily, I was signing up for a social volunteer opportunity, and I was getting out of the house more which kept me from becoming bored and rummaging through my pantry. After the pandemic, I was spending all my time at home (mostly eating, to be honest), I couldn’t go to the gym which resulted in a lack of motivation for home workouts, and my volunteer opportunity fell through. I don’t say this to complain or take pity on myself, my life has been nowhere near as hard as the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs or lives, I mention it to point out the fact that some of these key elements to improving mental health are temporarily gone. Some of you may miss seeing your therapist in person, even worse, some of you may be out of a job resulting in insurmountable stress, or maybe you ate clean healthy foods to improve mental health, but now the grocery shelves are always missing what you need. My answer: take this time to be creative.
Enjoy millions of free workout videos on YouTube, use gallons of water if you don’t have weights to lift, try new healthy foods or recipes based on what is available, go to local butchers and farms to purchase staple items, start a garden, try online therapy, join an online group therapy or addiction recovery group, and find online or simple service opportunities. It will not be easy to adapt, but take time to make a plan and find that structure and consistency your old way of life had. This helps me manage anxiety during uncertain times.
Before I move on to my final point, I want to share some overall general ways to improve mental health during this time. The two most important things are to eat healthy foods and exercise. These are some of the best natural ways to increase endorphins, increase serotonin, and relieve anxiety. Second, avoid bad habits. During this time where you may feel down, avoid alcohol, overeating, smoking, drugs, too much TV, etc. Avoid addictive behavior as a temporary pick me up, that will cause you more long term stress and problems in the future. Third, maintain a consistent schedule. Wake up and get dressed in something other than sweatpants. Go about your day accomplishing your goals, trying new things, and getting back into your old hobbies. I have started playing the piano again, cooking new recipes, scheduling daily tasks, going on walks with my family, and trying to paint. Finally, turn off the news. If you like to be more informed, I advise that you shouldn’t watch more than an hour summarizing today’s events. News is built to broadcast mostly negative or scary information to gain more clicks or viewers. Psychologically, our brains are more attracted to the negative things we see, because we need to tune out normal events and surroundings to be aware of potential danger. So don’t spend too much time overwhelming yourself.
Finally, I think one of the biggest problems is purposelessness. Since the pandemic, most people have an increased amount of time on their hands. Recently, I was listening to one of my favorite comedians and talk show hosts who gave some great advice that I would like to paraphrase. He was talking about anxiety during the time of COVID-19. He said anxiety is a symptom of purposelessness. People are anxious, especially now, because they lack things to do. While many of us, long for a day to do nothing but watch TV, lay around the house, and relax, that can only be fun for so many days. So, when you feel anxious and think you can’t handle doing anything more, think again. It is in fact the opposite; you are anxious because you have empty time on your hands. So, you need to ask what do you have on your plate? What fight have you not picked (not in a violent way, but a personal battle in your life)? If you feel anxious, it’s not because you’re overworked, it’s not because you are overburdened…it’s because you need to fill up your plate. Find something and go do it. Find something that is worth your time, especially something that will help others. Take this time and use it wisely, so that when you look back, it won’t be a period of wasted time, but rather a time where you learned how to replace anxiety with purposefulness.
Once again, if you are looking for help to overcome mental health struggles, or even some other people to relate to, please reach out by visiting our website www.insaneability.org. We are here guiding you to the life you want to live. I am hoping all of you not only remain safe and physically healthy, but mentally strong too. We will all get through this, and hopefully it is sooner than later.
– Julianne E.
Wan, William. (2020). “The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental health crisis.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/05/04/mental-health-coronavirus/.