Mental Health and COVID-19: Understanding Stress During a Pandemic
Mental health is complicated. Navigating our mental and emotional burdens is difficult under the most routine circumstances.
But during a pandemic? You may have found that it’s a totally different ballgame.
If you are having a hard time maintaining your mental health since COVID-19 turned the world upside down, you are not alone.
Living through a pandemic is stressful.
In fact, this pandemic has unleashed a uniquely potent combination of stressors on, well, the entire world, in a manner that has yet to be experienced or studied.
We are all going through this without a blueprint to begin with or an instruction manual to follow. “Unprecedented” has become quite the buzzword lately, but we keep saying it because it precisely defines the situation we find ourselves in.
So, because of that, please take a moment to show yourself some compassion. This is all crazy.
We are living through a disastrous global event. A stranger event than many of the things we read about in history class.
All things considered, if you are reading this right now, there’s a decent chance you are doing pretty well.
In order to remain well or improve, though, it’s important to understand how exactly a pandemic of this magnitude stresses us out.
Once you know that, you can actively nurture and protect your mental and emotional health for as long as these tragic situations and unfortunate conditions persist.
This article will explore precisely what it is about COVID-19 that makes dealing with it so hard and ways we can make it a little easier.
Plagued By Uncertainty
Though COVID-19 is certainly a new frontier, there is considerable research about how other disasters (natural disasters, mass shootings or terrorist attacks) impact mental health.
Experts have found that people often exhibit signs of stress after being exposed to a disaster, which can threaten an individual’s mental and physical health.
Currently, experts are still finding many things out about COVID-19. That is an important distinction.
The next phase of the coronavirus is virtually unknowable, as have all its previous phases. There is no chance for real preparation, only reaction as the virus and its repercussions unfold before us.
Herein lies the root of stress caused by this pandemic: the uncertainty of it all.
Such a lack of solid footing in just about every aspect of life can be emotionally draining and cause an unhealthy concentration on the scary unknowns of our current situation.
COVID-19 has stripped us of certainty in a way that we are completely uncomfortable with. We are forced to face a crisis that we have no control over whatsoever.
It just so happens that humans have a particularly difficult time navigating uncertainty and a lack of control.
By nature, we need a sense of control and security to feel safe.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus has injected uncertainty in just about every nook and cranny of our lives, stymying our ability to assert control over our environments.
Let’s break down the uncertainty caused by coronavirus regarding:
The Virus Itself
Does it seem like we keep learning things about COVID-19 as we go? That’s because we are.
All research and treatment development is being done in real-time. Most illnesses any of us contract are ones with years of empirical data and valid treatment methods attached to it.
We don’t have to confront our mortality when we get sick with something routine. Now, however, we must reckon with the fact that there is a virus with no cure killing thousands of people on a daily basis.
That is a very difficult thing to wrestle with, both consciously or subconsciously. That existential threat can take a serious toll on our mental wellbeing.
The Economy and Personal Finances
These are painfully valid stressors, with their own unique challenges and issues. There is no reason to dive any deeper into these uncertainties; we are undoubtedly all well acquainted with them by now.
However, it is important to note that individuals who experience substantial financial loss during this time are susceptible to enduring psychological trauma.
No matter the employment situation you find yourself, uncertainty is present.
Am I going to be laid off or furloughed? Is my company or business going to make it through the pandemic? How long will I be working from home? Will I be productive working from home? When will my office open back up? Will it be safe to go into my office when it opens back up? How can I provide my service safely?
These questions only exacerbate our general occupational stress.
The coronavirus has profoundly disrupted our social rhythms and instincts, which has been an issue for a species that is inherently social.
One of humankind’s basest social behaviors is affiliation, and that is proving difficult for many in quarantine.
We are not accustomed to maintaining relationships in such a remote manner. Connecting with friends and loved ones can become more difficult, confusing or painful during this time.
There is much uncertainty surrounding when we will get back to the socialization some of us crave. You may find that some relationships are deteriorating during the pandemic, but are unsure why or how to remedy it.
Any lack, or loss of connection we experience can cause us to feel isolated and lonely, two serious mental health risks.
Extrapolate those numbers across the globe and you have a considerable portion of the world’s population that must adjust to a complete transformation of their schooling.
Younger students have had to adapt to the many unknowns, and challenges, of online classes.
Graduates, whether high school or college, must adjust to a completely different educational or professional landscape than they were planning for. Thinking about and working towards a future in a world filled with uncertainty may prove to be quite stressful and demoralizing.
Almost overnight, these students have had to come to terms with the fact that they are not as in control of their immediate future as they were a few months ago.
Access to Essential Products and Services.
Whether it’s the disruption to food chains causing food shortages, or limited supplies of disinfectant products, consumers are being forced to deal with the fact that things they rely on to feel nourished, clean or safe are simply unavailable.
In the heavily commercialized cultures around the world, this can be a rather untethering and stressful notion.
The Health of Loved Ones
This is one of the pandemic uncertainties that is most difficult to deal with.
If someone close to you becomes sick with COVID-19, their survival is uncertain. This is a stark and sobering reality that many of us have had to confront.
In other cases, the concerns about the safety and health of loved ones that are immunocompromised is a constant concern for many.
It would be one thing to be uncertain about your own health, but carrying the vulnerability of those we are closest to can be even more painful and emotionally exhausting to manage.
COVID-19 Fear and Anxiety
Uncertainty leads to anxiety and fear.
During the pandemic, that cocktail of mental health risk is even more potent, its ingredients supercharged by COVID-19.
Fear and anxiety can lead to physical problems such as a weakened immune system, as well as serious mental health issues like depression and PTSD.
Due to the coronavirus, individual support systems have become fragmented at best. The behaviors, schedules and relationships we relied on to maintain our mental health are not necessarily as accessible as they were a few months ago.
This is another loss of control that many people are experiencing.
If that loss of control is too jarring, people may have a harder time persevering, and an easier time withdrawing or resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Solving Pandemic Stress
So, how do we break this cycle?
Well, respectfully, this article is titled understanding stress during a pandemic.
We don’t have a perfect answer, that is simply unattainable at this time. However, the fact that stress during a disaster is often rooted in uncertainty is a good place to start.
The question then becomes: what we can do to gather as much certainty as we can find?
If we are not living in a safe world right now, we can at least manufacture some security to hold us over until there is more of a blueprint to follow.
Taking Control Back from COVID-19
How do we regain control? It begins with refocusing your mind on what you can control.
The coronavirus has taken a lot from us, but there are still aspects of our life that we have power over.
Here are some ways you can regain control amid all the uncertainty:
1) Consider a change in perspective
If this sounds like a cliche, we get it, but we stand by it. Changing your thinking can be a powerful tool, especially in these times.
Dwelling on what the pandemic prevents you from doing is unhealthy and unproductive. Instead, be mindful of any different opportunities for control in our new, strange reality.
That can be a helpful distinction to remember, too - we are feeling a lack of control because we can no longer go about things like we did before the coronavirus. However, that reality where we did those things is currently unavailable to us.
The external world has changed dramatically, so we owe it to ourselves to recalibrate our internal expectations and tolerances in life during COVID-19.
Understanding and responding to that fact is a way of asserting control over your environment, and may alleviate a lot of stress.
2) Face your emotions head on.
All sorts of emotions are running at an all time high, which is even more of a reason to confront them. It is important to address how the pandemic is making you feel.
Bottling emotions up may feel easier in the short term, but not acknowledging them can actually make you more vulnerable to depression and anxiety.
We are not suggesting that you overcome your fears and anxieties overnight. Simply take what the pandemic has thrown at you and reckon with it. That’s all you have to do - reckon with it.
You don’t have to conquer any fears or solve any problems right now, just start addressing them. Doing so provides a glimmer of control, one that you can nurture and expand over time.
3) Control who you turn to for support.
One way to not only control your environment, but to protect yourself as well, is to actively choose who you communicate with. Try to connect with people who bring goodness and positivity to your life. Similarly, try to avoid or limit contact with people that may bring you down.
Any time spent with others who are consumed by their own uncertainties can be emotionally and mentally draining. With all the external forces already threatening our emotional and mental health, curating a positive social network is critical.
You have the power to choose to seek out healthy connections and reject unhealthy ones. Rather than opening yourself up to negativity, find people who you can rely on for understanding and comfort.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We can’t be the only ones asking that question more than usual these days.
As far as keeping fear and anxiety at bay during the pandemic, we can only take it one day at a time.
Remember - no blueprint or instruction manual. So we take it slow.
And don't forget to allow yourself a little self compassion once in a while. A deep breath and a pat on the back.
Right now, it seems we will best get through this with strength, patience and compassion, for ourselves and others.
If you get through the day without being too hard on yourself or someone else, consider it a success.
We also find it helpful to stay informed. But not too informed. That is a very fine line.
Taking on too much information can sometimes deteriorate our mental wellbeing. However, staying up to date on new developments in this pandemic allows us to find new opportunities to gain control.
Here at Sigmund, we keep our finger on the pulse of mental health and its treatment by trade, so you can be sure to hear more about mental health during COVID-19 from us.
We serve behavioral health and addiction treatment organizations, so we plan on keeping our readers and customers informed on how COVID-19 is impacting those communities.
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