No matter where you are in the world, the global Coronavirus pandemic has likely impacted you in many ways.
The disease swept through the world rapidly, overwhelming hospitals, forcing most countries into lockdown and disrupting life as we know it everywhere.
For huge numbers of people, the COVID-19 pandemic brought cancelled plans, altered routines and imposed social isolation. Many people have had to face economic uncertainty as well as worry about themselves or loved ones getting sick.
These stresses have also been compounded by the constant stream of information, rumors and misinformation from news and social media. All of this can make life feel overwhelming and out of control and can make it unclear what to do or how to react.
Based on a recent poll of more than 3,100 WebMD readers, 26% said they felt a sense of trauma from COVID-19 1.
What is the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our mental health? Why has this global pandemic been so particularly mentally taxing?
One of the main reasons this pandemic has affected our mental health in such a damaging way is due to the high level of uncertainty in the situation.
According to George Everly, who teaches about disaster-related mental health at Johns Hopkins University, “the greater the uncertainty surrounding a disaster, the greater psychological casualties.”
The coronavirus pandemic has a very high level of uncertainty. We don’t know how long it will last, or how bad it will get. No one knows exactly how the disease affects people, or what the long lasting damages will be. It’s totally uncertain when our day to day lives will “get back to normal” – or what that new normal will even look like.
The particular circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic have had serious impacts on mental health. Here are a few of the major ways this situation has affected us:
On a global scale, we are experiencing a lot of collective grief 2. Many people are grieving those who have already passed away as a result of COVID-19 infection 3. That is a huge source of sadness, depression, anxiety, frustration and loss and the emotional impact cannot be overlooked.
However, deaths of loved ones are not the only reason for grief in this situation. Even if you don’t know anyone who has died of coronavirus, you may still feel grief.
A large majority of us are filled with grief for the life we had at the beginning of 2020. It feels like a happier, simpler time where we could travel, shop, dine and socialize as we pleased without fear. We are missing the days when we didn’t have this stressful, scary and all-present threat hanging over our heads.
Many people are grieving the plans they were looking forward to this year – trips, concerts, events, festivals, family reunions and other important and meaningful events. Also, they are missing family and loved ones that they haven’t been able to see due to social distancing laws and travel restrictions.
In March, the height of the pandemic in many regions, prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs such as Klonopin and Xanax were up by 15 percent over the previous month 4.
The coronavirus pandemic creates a perfect environment for anxiety to take hold. Experiencing occasional low levels of anxiety is a normal part of life. However, people who have anxiety disorders experience frequent intense and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations 5.
The COVID-19 pandemic has a lot of characteristics that worsen anxiety. First of all, it is an ambiguous, looming, persistent and ever-present threat. It is something that has affected our entire lives and we are reminded of the danger multiple times per day – from when we order groceries online to when we wear a mask to take the dog for a walk.
This type of low-grade, chronic worry is exhausting and often intensifies anxiety. You might find you can’t stop thinking about the dangers of the virus, or that the worst case scenarios keep playing over and over again in your head. You might find yourself taking more precautions than are necessary, which can make it difficult to carry out your daily tasks.
However, on the flip side of this, one of the most dangerous symptoms of anxiety is denial. When people are suffering from extreme anxiety, rather than becoming overly cautious, they can have the opposite reaction. They may deny or refuse to believe the situation is serious. This is extremely dangerous for themselves and others around them, as they may ignore public health recommendations (such as refusing to wear a mask or practice social distancing) 6.
Due to what we know about this mental health condition, it comes as no surprise that levels of depression have sharply risen during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some of these cases are people who are experiencing depressive symptoms due to the situation, yet will be able to return to their baseline once things get better and their symptoms are addressed.
However, there are those who already have a form of depression or were at risk of developing it. They might have been resilient during normal times, but they have always had the potential to develop serious depression 7.
Feeling down during this time is normal and sometimes even unavoidable, but if the symptoms become serious or persist for a long time – this can indicate clinical depression.
People all over the world have been following social distancing measures to flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19. This means staying at home, working remotely and avoiding large gatherings.
Although these measures have been effective in fighting against the spread of the disease, they can also have negative psychological impacts. Isolation can make mental health issues worse and leave you feeling more anxious, stressed and depressed than before.
You may begin to feel like you are alone in the world, that no one understands how you feel, or that you don’t have anyone to talk to about what you are feeling. This can make you feel even more disconnected and isolated – which creates a downward cycle.
What can you do to feel better if you are feeling anxious, scared or depressed about COVID-19?
It’s important to be informed about what’s going on. However, too much exposure to negative messages on social media and sensationalist news stories can leave you emotionally exhausted and really take a toll on your mental health.
Pay attention to how you feel after scrolling through social media or reading the news. If it negatively affects you, consider limiting the amount of time you spend online. Also, stick to trusted, verified news sources to get the official word on what’s going on – rather than reading rumours or opinions on social media.
Set aside some time in the day where you turn off electronic devices completely. It will help you to unwind and relax – which is especially important right before bedtime.
Sometimes resisting our feelings can make them even stronger. Give yourself permission to admit that you are struggling at the moment and allow time and space to feel your feelings.
Keep in mind that anxiety and depression are medical conditions. They are not the result of failure or weakness 8. What you are going through is not the result of something you did or didn’t do – and it’s nothing to feel bad or guilty about.
One of the most important things you can do to improve your mental health is to eat as well as possible, exercise regularly, drink in moderation and get enough sleep. If possible, go outside and take a walk in the fresh air as often as you can.
Of course, if you are struggling with severe mental health problems this will not be enough and you may need to seek treatment, medication or external help. However, taking care of your body and getting regular sleep, exercise and healthy food can help you maintain a baseline of better overall mental health.
When you’re depressed, it can be really easy to forget these habits. It might help to keep reminders of your healthy habits that will motivate you – such as sticky-notes around your house or notifications on your phone.
Research has shown that people who spend time on hobbies are less likely to suffer from depression, low mood and stress 9.
If you have a hobby you enjoy, that can be a healthy way to direct your focus. Whether it’s writing, drawing, making crafts, playing games, woodworking or any other activity, your hobby will keep your mind occupied and give you something to think about other than the stress of the pandemic.
It can be incredibly therapeutic, and can also help you to connect with others who share a passion for your hobby.
Your hobby can also be a way to connect with others and socialize virtually during lock-down. For example, you could join a book club that meets on Zoom, or join an online forum for guitar enthusiasts, watercolor painters or anime fans.
Some people may find it helpful to talk about the anxiety-provoking situation of the pandemic with friends and loved ones. Talking about what’s going on can be a way to process your emotions, share empathy and reduce your fears.
If you find that it helps you, open up and talk about how you have been feeling with people you trust. It can help a lot to connect with others
However, it’s important to note that, for some people, talking about the pandemic can make anxiety worse. So, if you need to limit your conversations – it’s okay to tell others that you don’t want to talk about it right now.
You can simply change the subject or leave the room when the topic comes up – or let friends know that you don’t want to discuss the pandemic at length. Instead, talking with friends can be a way to keep your mind off the pandemic by getting lost in a discussion about something else.
You can’t force yourself to be happy, but you can seek out little things that will boost your mood in a positive way. You can try listening to uplifting music, playing with your pet, watching your favorite funny movies, going for a hike in nature or calling an old friend with a great sense of humour.
These things might seem silly or frivolous, and it can be easy not to do them – especially if you are busy or feeling depressed. However, they will really boost your mood in a positive way.
It doesn’t matter what it is – or if it’s something that you might think is silly or embarrassing. Now’s the time to watch all your favorite cheesy movies, listen to that “guilty pleasure” song or bake some cute cupcakes.
When the lockdown measures for COVID-19 were first enforced, social media was filled with people sharing statuses about how they were going to use the time at home productively. Many people stated they were finally going to write that novel, get in the best shape of their lives, learn a language, earn a degree online, etc.
It’s important to remember not to measure your own COVID-19 experience against these statements. Remember, this is a world-wide pandemic and it is different for everyone. It can be an incredibly emotionally and psychologically exhausting experience just to live through it.
You might find that getting through each day is challenging enough and that expecting yourself to complete huge, ambitious projects is simply unrealistic. That is absolutely fine. As long as you and your family are safe and healthy – that’s all that matters.
Do your best each day to care for yourself and your mental health, don’t put too many expectations on yourself and avoid comparing yourself to others.
According to the Census Bureau, more than one third of Americans have displayed clinical signs of anxiety, depression or both since the coronavirus pandemic began 10.
Many of us are experiencing mild levels of anxiety and depression about the coronavirus pandemic. Feeling sad, down, stressed or upset is normal.
However, you may find that these issues have increased to a more severe level. You might find that these feelings are plaguing you every day and that they are getting worse. Chronic anxiety can have a debilitating affect and can lead to irrational fears and thoughts that interfere with your daily life 11.
Hoping that your anxiety and depression will simply go away and not seeking help can lead to worsening symptoms. There are certain signs to watch for that indicate you might benefit from extra help and support.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, their support hotline received 1000% more texts in April 2020 compared to April 2019 12.
If you are in a situation where you need to get help for your mental health concerns – what should you do?
You likely know what feels normal for you. So, if you find yourself experiencing feelings and symptoms that aren’t typical, this may be a sign you need to seek help. Call or use social media to reach out to a trusted friend or loved one. It’s hard to talk about your feelings and it can be scary to ask for help, but it’s important.
Remember – it’s okay to ask for help. If you are feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, you can reach out and get professional help. There are centers that provide support and treatment, and there are also options to get support via phone or video-conferencing.
You can also contact your primary care provider or a mental health professional and ask them about appointment options to talk about your depression or anxiety. They will be able to offer you advice and guidance – or even advise you on phone, video or online appointments.
There is no single test that can diagnose anxiety or depression. Your doctor will probably give you a physical exam and a mental health screening test. Then, they may ask you questions about your experience to get a deeper insight into what you are feeling.
Finding the right treatment for your particular needs might take time. However, it’s important to seek out help and remember that you are not alone.