There’s a lot of advice being offered right now about how to keep yourself physically healthy during the coronavirus pandemic such as washing your hands, and practicing social distancing.
But managing mental health during this time is just as vital to your overall well-being. So while it is happening, take steps to address your psychological well-being as well.
If you’re not proactive about taking care of your mind and emotions during this time, you may notice a decline in mental health.
We’re all doing our part to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities and around the world. For many of us, our job seems pretty straight-forward: Stay at home as much as possible. However, self-distancing can cause more than just cabin fever. It can have a serious effect on your physical and mental health.
To combat this, our Workforce Health team, made up of health coaches, dietitians and exercise physiologists, has compiled these tips to help you stay physically active, mentally sharp and emotionally connected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are many ways and reasons the coronavirus pandemic may take a toll on your mental health. Being aware of the factors that might affect your well-being can help you take steps to combat these issues.
Fear of catching the virus and worrying about how you’re going to pay the bills are just two of the stresses of the situation that can make it difficult to function.
You may have to deal with a variety of practical problems—from figuring out childcare issues to determining how to keep your small business afloat. And you are also likely dealing with a lot of uncertainty.
There are many unknowns about the virus. Your day-to-day life may be changing rapidly as regulations and recommendations continue to roll out regarding social contact.
Many people are working from home while also having their children at home right now. And most social gatherings and events have been canceled (although laws vary a bit by city and state).
No matter where you live, your routine has likely been disrupted in some way. Having less structure, a changing schedule, and complete uncertainty about how long this will last can take a toll on your mental health.
Staying inside for extended periods of time can cause you to feel a bit restless. For some people it causes anxiety. For others staying indoors causes boredom. If left unaddressed, these emotions can lead to a decline in mental health.
For most people, the coronavirus pandemic means a lot less social contact. Some are separated from family members and co-workers. Others live alone and aren’t able to see anyone face-to-face.
While some may be able to use social media, phone calls, and video chats to stay connected, not everyone has people they can reach out to in this way. And since social interaction is vital for good mental health, less contact can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.
Whether you normally walk a half-mile to get on the train, or you have a job that involves a fair amount of physical labor, there’s a good chance your current work situation may not require you to move as much as you usually do.
Many gyms have closed (either voluntarily or due to local regulations) in an effort to support social distancing. So there may be fewer opportunities to work out—which may have been one of your most accessible coping skills.
If you previously had depression, anxiety, or another mental illness, your symptoms may intensify during stressful times. And even if your mental health was good prior to the pandemic, you may notice new symptoms emerging.
It’s important to remember that people aren’t either “mentally healthy” or “mentally ill.” Mental health is a continuum. And at any given moment, you might find yourself shifting up or down the continuum based on what’s going on around you.
Here are some warning signs that might indicate a decline in your mental health:
You might feel like you’re on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster right now. Whether you’re more irritable, sad, or anxious than usual, these emotions should be expected.
However, bigger shifts in your mood might be the sign of something more serious. If you’re struggling to manage your emotions, or if your emotions are making it difficult to function, it can be a sign that you may need to address your mental health.
Stress can also interfere with sleep. You might find you’re not able to fall asleep or that you wake up repeatedly throughout the night. On the flip side, you might find you’re sleeping too much. Maybe you nap throughout the day and have trouble waking in the morning despite a full night’s rest.
Getting too much or too little sleep are both signs of mental illness. But these issues can also be the cause of a negative impact on your psychological well-being. So both issues may need to be addressed simultaneously.
Distress can cause some people to eat too much. Others lose their appetites altogether. If you’re experiencing a major change in appetite or in weight, it could be a sign your distress is too high.
You might find you have more difficulty concentrating, staying on task, and being productive. And while the change in your routine may make these things more difficult, poor mental health can also be a factor.
If you’re having trouble taking care of your daily needs—taking a shower, doing household chores, or caring for your kids—it might be a sign that you may need to take serious steps to improve your psychological well-being.
Physical activity does more than improve your physical health. It releases endorphins that boost your mood and reduce stress. “Exercise boosts levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. It gives you a general good feeling about being in control in an otherwise uncontrollable situations,” said Duane Milder, Workforce Health coach. Don’t let gym closures stop your workouts. There are plenty of fitness apps and websites to help you develop an at-home exercise regimen, and many strength-training exercises can be done without gym equipment. If the whole COVID-19 situation has diminished your motivation to work out, that’s okay. Start with simple activities like stretching at home or walking around your neighborhood.
It’s easy to find comfort in potato chips and ice cream, but too many sugary and fatty foods can contribute to weight gain and poor mental health. Tracey Brand, RD, recommends mixing healthy snacks with junk food ones. “Try to make sure fruits and veggies are making their way on your plate at each meal,” she says. “These high-fiber and low-calorie foods have lots of germ-fighting potential.” Try low-fat yogurt, wholegrain crackers with hummus or one of these other healthy snack options.
We’re so focused on taking care of others during this uncertain time — protecting immediate family and neighbors from COVID-19, learning to work with colleagues in a remote work environment, checking in on at-risk loved ones — that we may forget to check in with ourselves. Set aside at least 10 minutes every day to focus on your own mental health. Journal about your feelings. Meditate. Read a book to escape. Taking the time to help yourself will give you the energy to help others.
A strong immune system offers protection from seasonal illnesses and other health conditions like cancer. While nothing can replace washing your hands with soap and water, certain foods do have immune-boosting properties. Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, tangerines), strawberries and red bell peppers are filled with vitamin C, which stimulates the formation of antibodies to protect you from infection. Vitamin A can stave off infection, and it’s found in sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots and foods labeled “vitamin A-fortified,” like milk or cereal. Protein is another key factor in a healthy immune system. Healthy sources of protein include lean meats, poultry, eggs and seafood.
One deep breath can make a huge difference when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Deep breathing exercises lower blood pressure and ease the mind while strengthening your lungs. Try this: Sit in a comfortable position with your shoulders relaxed. Close your eyes if that helps you relax. Breathe in slowly through your nose, expanding your belly. Exhale slowly for a count of five. Pause for two seconds, then inhale again. Repeat as many times as needed.
If you struggle with proper workplace posture in the office, it may be even harder to maintain while working at home. Making slight adjustments to your workstation can prevent eye strain, musculoskeletal issues and mental fatigue. Adjust your monitor so the top of your screen is at eye level. Sit with your arms and thighs parallel to the floor and your back supported. Use a pillow or folded towel for additional back support, if needed. Your wrists should be straight and relaxed when your fingers are in the middle row of the keyboard and your elbows should be loose, not locked. Finally, keep your work area clutter-free. A clean desk means a clean mind.
A regular sleep routine can establish a sense of normalcy and keep stress at bay. “You’ll fall asleep faster and get better quality sleep if you stick to a schedule,” Milder said. Try to go to sleep and wake up around the same time daily. Turn off electronics at least one hour before your bedtime; they emit blue light that interferes with melatonin, the hormone that helps you sleep. Plus, this gives you a break from the stream of coronavirus-related news. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, try drinking herbal tea, taking a hot bath or shower or writing down any thoughts that keep you tossing and turning.
At a time when we all need to keep our physical distance, it’s important to remember that we can (and should) stay emotionally connected. Call or video chat with your relatives, especially those who live alone. Set up a virtual game night with your friends. Learn about ways you can help your community. We’re all in this together, which means none of us are truly alone.