The Covid-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc across the globe, but it’s not just people’s physical health that’s imperiled: Our mental wellbeing, too, has taken a major hit in recent, difficult weeks.
Around 35 percent of Americans say their mental health has declined in the week leading up to March 30 — an increase of 22 percent from the week before, findings from the Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index show. Forty-three percent say their emotional wellbeing has worsened, compared to 29 percent the week prior.
Our main concerns are fear that our family members will get sick (62 percent), that our investments, like retirement and college savings, will crumble (51 percent), and that we’ll lose income due to reduced hours or workplace closure (46 percent), according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
It’s undeniable that these are scary times. But the good news is that there are ways of managing our fears and anxieties, redirecting our energy to what we can control, rather than what we can’t.
The importance of managing your emotions
First off, it is normal to feel stress right now. But worrying excessively can compromise our ability to handle challenges.
When our bodies perceive a threat, be it a wild animal or a troubling news alert, it releases a surge of two hormones into our systems: Adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases our heart rate, elevates blood pressure and initiates an energy boost. Cortisol suppresses functions that are unhelpful in a fight-or-flight context, like the digestive and reproductive systems, and sends signals to the areas of our brains that control mood, motivation and fear.
When disbursed in moderation, both hormones can be incredibly helpful to our productivity, sharpening our focus and giving us the energy to accomplish things we otherwise couldn’t.
But too much of either is a detriment to our health, and failing to find ways to cope with chronic stress increases the risk of developing conditions like anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep issues, memory and concentration impairment.
Dr. Chris Fagundes, an associate professor in the department of psychological sciences at Rice University, has done extensive research on the connection between mental health and immune health, particularly when it comes to colds and upper respiratory infections.
“If you are chronically stressed and chronically secreting cortisol, your cells become immune to it and you’ll have this chronic inflammation,” Fagundes says.
“This puts you at risk of having more upper respiratory complications and that’s really what we’re scared about in this current epidemic.”
Check in with yourself
Panic attacks can actually mimic some of the symptoms of Covid-19 itself, which is especially unhelpful if the source of your panic is Covid-19. But there are several simple strategies we can take to minimize stress.
Russ Harris, a psychotherapist and the author of The Happiness Trap, came up with a series of steps called FACE COVID.
- Focus on the things that you can control. You can’t control Covid-19, the economy or even your feelings, but you can control what you do here and now.
- Acknowledge what you’re feeling. Recognizing that you’re dealing with anxiety can both allow you to give yourself a break, and appreciate that what you’re feeling is just that: A feeling.
- Come back into your body. Take deep breaths, press your feet hard into the floor, stretch your arms and neck. This will help you regain a sense of control.
- Engage in what you’re doing. Think about a handful of things you can see from where you’re sitting, or note whatever sensations you’re experiencing as a way of refocusing your mind.
Once you’ve anchored yourself in the present, it’s easier to control your future actions, which is helpful for completing the next set of steps:
- Committed action is about engaging in actions that align with your values. Text a friend you know is alone, deliver groceries for an elderly neighbor, or work on accomplishing a household task you’ve long put off.
- Open up about continuing to engage with your own feelings, and being as compassionate and patient with yourself as you would with someone else.
- “Values” reminds you to think about what’s important to you and what you’d like to contribute to the world during the crisis. At JotForm, we’ve launched the Coronavirus Responder Program, which allows healthcare practices, nonprofits and government agencies to use our paid plans for free as they respond to the pandemic. We all have a responsibility to step up and do what we can to help make a difference.
- Identify resources by figuring out who to reach out to when you’re in a crisis and find reliable sources of information to keep your anxiety in check.
- Disinfect and distance, which protects both you and your community.
Create new routines
Judith Matloff, a war correspondent and adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School, knows a thing or two about maintaining calm during a crisis. One of her key takeaways from her career covering wars, disasters and emergencies is that it’s up to all of us to do our part to maintain calm.
“The first thing is to accept that this is the new normal, for as long as it lasts,” she writes.
“We don’t know what a couple months will bring so don’t speculate about it. If you’re going to dwell on the worst-case scenario, come up with a contingency plan and focus on creating a routine to get through the days, one at a time.”
Adding structure to the day is helpful not just for grounding yourself, but also for eliminating excess free time that can feed anxiety about the crisis, says Robin Stern, the co-founder and associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
“One of the reasons people feel dislocated is that they are home all day long,” she said.
“Normally, they grab a coffee on the way to the subway, they ride the subway, they walk into the office and greet people at the desk. Now, they’re not doing any of those things.”
The solution is to create new schedules for daily life, allocating time for work, free time, movement, meals, and meditation, in whatever form that takes for you.
Consume the news in moderation
With the disruption of regular routines and the constant deluge of new information, it’s easier than ever to get sucked into the news cycle.
And while consuming some news is vital to staying up to date on what’s going, there’s definitely such a thing as too much.
Sheila Teresa Murphy, an associate professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, says dialing back the amount of bad news we consume is a matter of staying sane.
“It is vital to keep the true prevalence of the coronavirus in perspective,” Murphy says. “The vast majority of people will only ever experience coronavirus through the news media — few of us will actually contract the virus. So while the 24/7 media coverage may make it seem like the disease is omnipresent, we need to remember that it isn’t omnipresent in our lives.”
In order to rein in your news consumption, Murphy offers three suggestions:
- Avoid bingeing on TV news. Instead, read about Covid-19 in moderation.
- Be judicious about where your news is coming from. Stick to reputable outlets or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Be wary when gathering news from social media. The content is not regulated and can include conspiracies and conjecture.
Better yet, log off altogether. Read a book, watch a movie, or take a walk outside and give your brain a chance to recharge. There will be plenty of news waiting for you when you get back.