The evidence is clear – we’re on the brink of a global mental health crisis. According to a study just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40% of US adults have experienced mental health issues or behavioral health challenges in recent months. Another study by the American Psychological Association found that stress levels in the US are on the rise. A recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that the percentage of US adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression has tripled during the pandemic. Across Europe and Asia, experts are reporting similar trends.
Amid all this year’s suffering — the tragic loss of life, the staggering loss of jobs, the multiple marches and protests — it’s easy to feel hopeless. In fact, adopting a moderately pessimistic mindset during a global health and financial crisis may help you stay safe. Following the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak, researchers found that defensive pessimists — people who think about worst-case scenarios and plan accordingly — were more likely to practice preventive health behaviors than their more optimistic peers.
But too much negative thinking can be debilitating. If constant vigilance is causing constant worry, you may be putting your physical and mental health at risk. Persistent pessimism is associated with a number of health problems, including anxiety and depression, high blood pressure and heart disease, and sleep and mood disorders. Considering these consequences, it is critical to understand how COVID-19 is affecting your health and wellbeing. These four questions can help.
- How have you been feeling? Researchers have found that repeated exposure to trauma can wear us down, leading to cumulative stress and anxiety. Cumulative stress, in turn, can cause a wide range of physical and emotional responses, including increased irritability, decreased motivation, changes in eating or sleeping habits, or unexplained aches and pains. Given the amount of suffering and stress the pandemic has caused, it is important to get a read on your psychological wellbeing. Self-assessments like this one from the Mayo Clinic can provide quick insights, but the safest thing to do — especially if you have been experiencing any notable physical, mental or emotional changes — is to talk with your doctor or a mental healthcare professional. If your organization provides an employee assistance program, that could be an additional source of support
- What are you doing to take care of yourself? A growing body of research shows that we can improve our health and wellness through self-care. Unfortunately, many people do not have a regular self-care practice. In one recent study, we found that over a quarter of survey respondents fell into this camp. It’s never too late to start, though. The good news is that small changes can lead to big differences, and there are many different ways to take care of yourself. In fact, the best self-care plans are based on a holistic review of your health and wellness, considering the various aspects of your life (for example, your home life, social life, work life, spiritual life), your values and character strengths, and the unique assets and personal resources you can draw on to cope with current challenges. Assessments like these and toolkits like this can help you get started.
- What is helping you cope? Psychologically speaking, bad is stronger than good. Researchers have found that we tend to pay more attention to what’s going wrong rather than what’s going right. This tendency can prevent us from noticing those people or practices that have been sustaining us during the pandemic. As a result, we might be overlooking our personal strengths, the power of our social network, or other sources of resilience. Two practices may help you reflect on the past few months from a different perspective. First, take time to count your blessings. Gratitude can have a positive impact on our happiness and wellbeing (but note that gratitude has a limited impact on serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety). Journaling exercises like these can help you get started. Second, search for silver linings. This is what a team of psychologists did with Louisiana residents in the months and years following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Through this process, the research team discovered a handful of positive outcomes — like improved social cohesion — that residents observed in the wake of the storms. By searching for your own silver linings from the past six months, you may discover some unexpected sources of support and consolation that you can rely on in upcoming months.
- How can you grow from this experience? As the global death counts resulting from COVID-19 approach a million, there is much reason to mourn. When a crisis of this magnitude occurs, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by a sense of loss and sorrow. But psychologists have found that following tragic events, some people also experience post-traumatic growth — a positive psychological change that results in a higher level of personal functioning and wellbeing. Post-traumatic growth can manifest itself in different ways. Some people may develop an increased sense of their personal strength after trauma. Others may come to realize they have new possibilities in their personal or professional life. Some people may build closer social relationships during times of adversity. Others may develop a new spiritual perspective or a deeper appreciation for life. Based on this research, you may want to consider how you have “grown” over the past few months. Has the pandemic increased your sense of strength and fortitude? Has it clarified any values or prompted any desire for change at home or at work? Have you deepened any friendships or gained any wisdom? Reflecting on these types of questions may help you turn the challenges of the pandemic into sources of personal growth and positive change.
Experts warn that the pandemic will continue to cause outbreaks until a vaccine is developed and disseminated, and that could take months. That means life may not return to any semblance of normalcy until well into 2021. By reflecting on your emotional response to recent events, developing a self-care routine, and identifying sources of support and opportunities for growth, you can prepare yourself for what will likely be a tumultuous six to 12 months.