Mental Wellness in a Pandemic

Mental Wellness in a Pandemic

Kristin Lasseter, MD

Mental Wellness in a Pandemic

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.

Written by Kristin Lasseter, MD

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.
Decreased motivation.
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.

So here’s a guide to get through a pandemic:

  • Learn what’s necessary, then tune out.
    The media is all about hyping up the pandemic or other events going on in the world. Their entire purpose is to capture your attention and keep it. What better way to do that than to dramatize everything? This drama inherently makes us more stressed though. Literally, it increases cortisol levels and primes our body to be in a state of stress. So do your body and mind some good by staying away from the media. Maybe limit yourself to catching up on the news 5-10 minutes a day if you feel it is necessary, but then turn your attention to other, more helpful tasks.
  • Exercise your mind.
    Our brain needs exercise just like our body, and it gets this push from challenges in thinking. Therapy is a great way to exercise our brain, but we can use other techniques too, such as mindfulness meditation. Consider downloading a meditation app and practicing (key word: practicing) meditation for 5-10 minutes a day. There are also online courses or workbooks you can get on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in order to find different tools for challenging thoughts and beliefs. Whatever form of “therapy” you decide to do for your brain can be helpful. Repetition, just like with physical exercise, is key to making changes though.
  • Work out.
    Speaking of physical exercise, working out is important for your brain. If we continue to think of the brain as an organ in our body, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Exercise has many physiological impacts on the cells in our brain that improve and optimize the way that they function. It also keeps them healthy longer - anti-aging outside and inside. While any form of exercise is better than none, it appears that sustained aerobic exercise, several times a week, is particularly helpful for preventing and improving mental illnesses.
  • Eat well.
    Did you know that there are certain foods that are great for the cells in your brain? In fact, there’s an entire division of psychiatry called nutritional psychiatry that focuses on using food to help mental illness. Eating these foods can also keep our brain functioning well, and help prevent future mental illness episodes. This is particularly important when your body is under stress. A general good rule of thumb for eating well is consuming a good variety of fruits and vegetables every day (aim for 5+ total servings each day), and limiting processed carbohydrates. For our brain in particular, seafood is also a great addition!
  • Sleep well.
    People who get an average of 8 hours of sleep a night live longer than those who don’t. Sleep is important for our entire body - every organ. Poor sleep can impact everything from digestion, to blood pressure to emotions. Mental wellbeing is particularly sensitive to sleep though. Sleep can be a difficult activity to get with a new baby around, or while being pregnant and needing to pee every hour. Aim to practice strict sleep hygiene techniques to improve both quality and quantity of sleep, and get at least 4-5 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
  • Find a new routine.
    If you’ve been around children, then you know how important a routine is for human brains. When you throw off a toddler’s routine, someone whose brain is still in the early stages of development but very primed for displaying emotions, all hell breaks loose. As adults, our brain hasn’t changed drastically. It still craves routine and its function is optimized when we stick to routines. Fortunately, we’ve developed more of a frontal lobe than we had as toddlers, so we can control our impulse to throw a tantrum when our routine changes, but a change in routine still causes some stress in our body. Even if the change in routine is perceived as positive, like a vacation, we still have an adjustment period to finding a new routine. The same goes for this period of time. Our routine has probably changed, but it is important to find a new one that works for you and stick to it. Also, it’s completely normal to go through some trial and error as you are finding a new routine and adjusting to it.
  • Socialize.
    We are naturally social creatures. It is how we have evolved. We were never lone humans living a life of isolation. All of us need human interaction and socialization to have the optimal environment for our brain. For women in particular, we find that women with strong friendships live longer than those without. For men, studies show that being married increases their lifespan. While we are social distancing, make sure to continue talking and virtually seeing your friends. Keep date nights with your partner and happy hour with your friends. Get creative and have fun with coming up with ideas on how to spend time together during the pandemic.
  • Set boundaries.
    While it is important to keep up with relationships and interactions with those we care about, it is equally important to keep boundaries with people. There are certain people in our life who can add to the stress we are going through, so while we’re trying to optimize our mental wellness, make sure you are setting up helpful boundaries around those people. Similarly, set boundaries with your time too - give breaks for yourself from work and caring for family members.
  • Do something nice for yourself each day.
    This is probably one of the easiest, yet most important tools to help mental wellness. Every day, do an activity for yourself that either makes you feel good or makes you feel accomplished. Most importantly though, don’t make it a reward and do it with intention. Meaning, do this nice activity for yourself each day, just because you care (or are learning to care) about yourself. You don’t need to “earn it.” You get to enjoy this activity because it should be a basic human right to care for yourself.
  • Allow for support and help.
    When we are stressed, it is important to allow others to support us. In the American culture, this can sometimes be misconstrued as being weak, but in reality, it’s natural. Going back to the fact that we are social creatures, it is normal for us to depend (yes, I said depend) on other people for our wellbeing. You can probably survive without anyone else, just like you can probably survive on a macaroni-and-cheese-only diet; however, that doesn’t mean that is what is most healthy for you. Furthermore, it takes depending on others to form intimate and close relationships. Maybe there is someone in your life who is always independent, never asks you for help, and never opens up to you about their problems. It’s hard to feel very close to someone like that, because you don’t get to support them. The same applies for those around you - letting people support you and help you makes them feel valuable in the relationship and brings you closer together. It also helps decrease your stress and improves your mental wellness.

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.