Learn what normal stress looks like during a pandemic versus mental illness, and a guide for the best way to make it through this time mentally well.
One of my friends texted me the other day and said, “I can’t believe it’s only Monday!”
She was wrong.
It was actually Tuesday.
The time during this pandemic can feel like a perpetual Monday though. It’s as if we’re starting at the beginning of a long week every single day, with so much time before we get relief. For many of us, this pandemic has completely changed our lives, and we’re left wondering what it will be like in a few weeks, or even in a few months.
While many have called this pandemic “unprecedented,” I beg to differ. Our world has been through pandemics many times. In fact, our species has been through more horrible pandemics than this, but, fortunately, the majority of us weren’t alive to experience those. So far, humans have always figured out a way to adapt to illness though and go on with living. I doubt it will be much different in this situation.
How do we endure it though? How do we make sure we’re not just burying our heads in the sand and waiting for time to go by? Life is just made up of moments, so even though this moment may not be our favorite, it’s still worth trying to be present for. It’s part of life. Not to mention, there are probably people in your life who depend on you in some capacity, and you cannot take care of others without taking care of yourself first.
A pandemic is stressful. Stress is inevitable, and the effects of stress on us are normal. If we can get through pandemic stress, we can probably get through most stressors in life. The best way to cope with stress is to focus on mental and physical wellness. In the end, it’s our body and mind that take us through this world, from one moment to the next. If we can optimize our wellbeing, we have a better chance at getting through this major stressor without major consequences on our bodies.
Here is what is normal during times of stress:
Physical symptoms, such as fatigue, headaches, stomach aches, and diarrhea (maybe that’s where all the toilet paper has gone).
Changes in sleep.
Changes in appetite.
Feeling more emotional - discouragement, anger, anxiety, sadness, grief, restlessness or overwhelmed.
Increased mood swings.
Isolating and withdrawing from others
Trouble with memory.
Difficulty making decisions or problem solving.
Changes in communication patterns.
We start to be concerned about mental illness when these symptoms become more impairing. For example, someone has so much fatigue they cannot get out of bed. Or their appetite changes so much that they gain or lose a significant amount of weight. Or their emotions become so extreme that they cannot function in relationships well. Another main clue that there is more concern for mental illness is if a person can no longer keep up with their normal work or daily activities.
It is not uncommon for mental illness to come up during times of stress. In fact, there’s an entire biochemical reaction that goes on in our bodies to prime our brains for mental illness when we are stressed. It’s why most people develop mental illness during times of stress. It has nothing to do with them being weak or not being resilient enough to get through a tough time. Instead, it has to do with biological changes going on in the cells of our brain (our neurons) that then prevent them from functioning well. In other words, our the neurons in our brain fail to function in their normal capacity, which has an effect on our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Just like any other organ in our body, our brain can become ill. Similar to other organs, sometimes our brain can be repaired with lifestyle changes alone, but sometimes it needs medication to get it back to good health. And that’s okay.Iin fact, it’s more of the norm. For example, some people can live healthy lifestyles with a great diet and consistent exercise, but still have high cholesterol that requires medication. It doesn’t mean they are a failure at being healthy. It’s just the way their body is - most likely there is a biological and genetic reason that they have no control over. The same applies for the brain and mental illnesses. Try to follow the lifestyle changes that are helpful during this stressful time, but know that if that’s not enough, it’s better to get extra help. Not only for yourself, but for those close to you too.
Please do not walk away from this article feeling the need to make all of these lifestyle changes or to do them 100%. No one is perfect, and no one will be able to fully do all of the things listed above. That’s okay. Having self-compassion during this time is also important. Go easy on yourself. Be kind to yourself. You’re going through a pandemic after all! Normal life will resume soon enough, so find ways to enjoy this moment.