Monitoring our mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is impacting mental health.

Man calmly breathing

The past few months have been a whirlwind of emotions for many as we adapt to our new normal during the COVID-19 pandemic. Adapting to change is difficult. Adapting to change during a crisis is even more challenging. Yet adapting to change that seems ongoing is like trying to find your footing in an earthquake. That is how one might describe the rollercoaster of feelings, moods, thoughts as time progresses, and researchers are taking notice as well.

In a March 2020 Letter to the Editor of “Brain, Behavior and Immunity,” author Montemurro suggests high levels of stress are affecting frontline workers as well as the majority of people. Mental health professionals are seeing psychological impacts in people who already are dealing with mental health issues and those who have not been previously diagnosed with depression and anxiety. This should be a signal to all to pay attention to one’s own mental health as well as monitor the mental health of others.

There is rising concern over an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and potential for suicides. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a dedicated page on the emotional well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. On their page, they have a downloadable toolkit with recommendations to support yourself during social distancing such as being your own advocate by connecting with others, educating yourself and understanding mental health risks.

Look for symptoms of stress in yourself and those close to you such as not being able to sleep, sleeping too much, over or under eating, being moody or being hypervigilant. If you notice these types of behaviors, take action by talking about what is stressing you out. Some refer to this as “name it to tame it,” as described by Daniel Siegel in his book “The Whole Brain Child” (2012).

Although we can’t change or eliminate stress, research has shown by intentionally changing our response to stress we can increase our resiliency, or a person’s ability to bounce back from adversity. Try bringing more fun into your everyday life, watch a comedy, reach out to friends and family virtually, go for a walk or cook a new healthy recipe. Commit to exploring ways to practice mindfulness and meditation online as another healthy way to respond to stress.

In an article posted in the “Journal of Health Psychology” (2020), author Matias and colleagues suggest that COVID-19 pandemic has presented a challenge to our own coping mechanisms during crisis of being able to get back to balance of basic human needs (physical, emotional, social). They encourage the benefits of including some physical activity into each day, to whatever extent a person is able in their current physical state. People benefit both physically and emotionally from daily exercise and this helps us maintain or reset our body and mind to a state of balance.

Michigan State University Extension responded quickly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to move many face-to-face programs to online offerings open to the public and most are free. Many of these online learning opportunities are focused on helping people manage stress. Over the past few months, participants in the Stress Less with Mindfulness and RELAX: Alternatives to Anger programs have expressed appreciation for being able to connect with us and others, especially as it helps them feel less isolated. These two programs are being offered for free online across the state. To find a class that fits your schedule and many other online resources, please visit MSU Extension's Remote Learning and Resources website.

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