This article was originally published on March 22, 2020 and edited on May 4, 2021.
COVID-19 continues to disrupt life around the world in unprecedented ways — inciting anxiety across the globe. According to a seven-country survey by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 51% of the respondents said the pandemic was having a negative impact on their mental health. In India, a survey of nearly 10,000 respondents across 203 cities by YouGov, Mint, and the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research (CPR) found that eight in ten were feeling an increase in anxiety.
And as this crisis continues, we can expect those numbers to surge.
On top of the fear of contracting COVID-19, millions are living with continued financial anxiety. Parents are often struggling to work without the support of child care. The elderly and sick can still find themselves more alone than ever. This is to say nothing of the ongoing stressful conditions being faced by frontline health workers.
Our collective stress has the potential to become long-term, sustained strain. In that sense, the mental and emotional toll of COVID-19 is as much a threat to public health as the virus itself.
Chronic, unrelenting stress — particularly the kind that comes from the loss of meaningful work, financial hardship, or constant exhaustion — is tough on our minds and our bodies. It causes “wear and tear” that can trigger a cascade of adverse health outcomes like heart disease, obesity, and stroke. It can also induce people to consume more alcohol and drugs with further adverse effects on their health.
Loneliness is another social determinant of health. Studies show that people who lack strong social connections often have disrupted sleep patterns, more inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones. It can weaken their immune systems, reducing their ability to fend off disease. All told, evidence suggests that loneliness can be worse for your health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
So, as we in the public health community work to continue keeping people safe amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s critical that we prioritize mental and emotional health, too — especially for those who are already prone to depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. India had a growing mental health crisis even before the pandemic, and one that has only gotten worse. In a survey in July of 2020 by the preventive healthcare platform GOQii, 26% of respondents said they were experiencing mild depression, 11% reported feeling moderately depressed, and 6% said they were experiencing symptoms of severe depression. With the massive surge in infection and deaths, these symptoms are certain to escalate substantially.
And all of us should take extra time and care for ourselves during this time of upheaval. Of course, many of our go-tos for coping with stress — going to the gym, grabbing dinner with friends, watching sports — are still off-limits in many parts of the world. But in the meantime, there are lots of things we can do to improve our well-being.
1. Practice physical distancing — but not social isolation. Thanks to technology, there are countless ways to stay close to our loved ones while keeping a healthy physical distance. Check in on family over Skype or FaceTime, call up old friends, or respond to those emails you’ve been meaning to get around to for weeks (or months). The more connected we stay with one another, the better off we’ll all be.
2. Stay mindful and active. Keeping our minds and bodies busy is key to overall wellness, especially in times of crisis. Make it a point to engage in activities that bring you joy, whether that’s taking a long walk, trying a new recipe, or practicing a musical instrument. Do try to resurrect that old hobby that somehow got lost in the rush of a busy life or learn a new language that you always wanted to. There are also hundreds of apps dedicated to yoga, mindful meditation, home-workouts, and other activities to help you stay calm and present.
3. Limit news consumption. It’s important to get accurate, up-to-date information throughout the pandemic and beyond, but binge-reading or watching the news can negatively impact your well-being. Limit the amount of time you spend consuming social media or news that doesn’t make you feel better. And remember that it’s okay to unplug for a while.
4. Create a new routine to fit your new normal. In this time of uncertainty, structure can alleviate our anxiety and give us a sense of control over our day-to-day lives. Try to stick to a set schedule, with a consistent sleeping and wake-up time each day and having regular and nutritious meals. And set a few manageable daily goals for yourself.
5. Seek help when you need it. It’s important to reach out if you’re feeling overwhelmed. That can mean talking to friends or family or someone else you trust. This is especially important if is you have recently experienced a bereavement. Seeking help can also mean engaging with a mental health professional. It may not be feasible to see a therapist in person right now, but telehealth services are increasingly available.
There’s no question that disruption and uncertainty are going to continue. But if we take good care of ourselves and each other, we can emerge from this crisis more resilient — and, just maybe, mentally stronger than ever before.Click here for information about how Thrive Global is supporting our healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, and find out how you can support the cause by donating to #FirstRespondersFirst.