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Pandemic stress and your mental health: Three ways to feel better

A recent report by the CDC stated that the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression has doubled since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Nine-months of pandemic life has most of us struggling in one way or another. One thing’s for sure, it’s stressful.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a report connecting ongoing pandemic stress to trauma. The report stated the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression has doubled since the coronavirus pandemic began.

So, how do we cope with our feelings? And, what can we do to help ourselves feel better, especially while the pandemic persists?

Sally McDaniel is a licensed mental health counselor who oversees child and family services for Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare, a nonprofit in Pierce County. She shared three ways to make coping easier, and she has some guidance to help you know if it’s time to seek mental health support.

It is well-established that the pandemic and infection rates have come in waves. Each wave is accompanied by fear and stress for many, McDaniel said. She also said it is natural to grieve the loss of many of the freedoms we have given up in pandemic times. Recognizing our sacrifices can be an important start of the coping process.

Now that we’ve been coping for months, that rush of energy many of us felt at the beginning is long gone. Yet, the threat of the virus, and all the changes it brings, just keeps coming.

McDaniel advised that we do three things to support our mental health through the ongoing pandemic stress: Build awareness. Develop mindfulness. Forgive ourselves.

So, let's break those down further.

Pandemic Stress Coping Skill #1: Build Awareness

First, McDaniel said you have to recognize what you’re feeling. Recognizing, and if possible, naming your feelings helps you gain awareness. Her advice is to know your baseline and what’s normal for you. Next, observe yourself.  Are you sleeping? Are you eating normally? Then, track what you do. 

She recommended getting up and going to sleep about the same time every day. Eating three healthy meals and getting dressed in your street clothes (not pajamas) every day. 

“If you can, call a friend every day or on a schedule you establish together,” said McDaniel. “Get outside every day. Walk if you can or just move around.”

When you have an established routine, it’s easier to identify early signals that something is off and then lead yourself back to balance.

Pandemic Stress Coping Skill #2: Develop Mindfulness

Second, McDaniel said try to develop mindfulness. When you recognize that your behavior is out of balance, you have the chance to move toward mindfulness. For instance, you might always wash your dishes after lunch. If you notice that you stop doing this for several days in a row, it could be an indicator that you need to check in with yourself and possibly your mental health counselor.

If you can, move back toward your routine. Your healthy habits help you re-regulate your behavior. McDaniel added that incorporating some levity in your routine can be a big help. She likes finding old comedy sketches on YouTube and laughing for five-minutes or doing MadLibs with your kids. Small moments of fun and laughter can help reframe your perspective.

Pandemic Stress Coping Skill #3: Forgive Yourself 

Third, if your internal dialogue is harsh, ease up. Forgiving yourself can be a process. So, start by replacing harsh words with kind ones. Allow yourself quiet time each day. Just 20 minutes of sitting in silence can help slow thoughts. Or a nice, warm bath signals to the body and brain that it is time to relax. Practice letting go of past mistakes. Instead, focus on what you can do now like connect with the people you love or step outside to enjoy nature.

McDaniel said it might be time to seek mental health support and contact a counselor if: Loved ones tell you, you seem withdrawn, or they don’t hear from you anymore, or that you are unusually snippy and short-tempered. Or, when the burden of the weight of all you are feeling doesn’t go away, or when the things you are trying to do to stay mentally well aren’t working.

These days, a lot of therapy is taking place via telehealth portals and over the phone. Some patients said they like this much better because they’ve ditched the waiting room. For some, this makes therapy feel more private. Others remark about the not commuting for the care they need.

Some good ways to find a mental health counselor include:

- Ask a friend or family member you trust for a referral to a good therapist.

- Contact your insurance provider or Medicare / Medicaid websites and search for mental health counselors who are accepting new patients.

- Visit the Psychology Today website for a list of therapists in your area.