How to manage your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

Published April 19, 2020 at 6:03 pm


While the federal and provincial authorities are providing direction to manage the spread of COVID-19 and treat those currently diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, a study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health says that mental health professionals are now seeing a profound and broad spectrum of psychological impacts that this pandemic is causing.

It is no surprise that the effect of social distancing and isolation, in addition to the legitimate risk of viral contagion, is creating new levels of distress. This is a particularly challenging time for those with pre-existing psychiatric symptoms.  

As well, new and emerging symptoms are surfacing for individuals with no history of mental health concerns. This is our current state and this must be acknowledged for the health and safety of our communities. How we adapt and function from a mental health perspective will influence our decision making, how we relate to others, and how we move forward and recover from the trauma of this pandemic.

As a society, we must begin to highlight the populations who are most vulnerable and ensure that they have access to the support and services that they need. Additionally, we must also begin to normalize the stress that recent events are causing so that emerging symptoms can be recognized early and managed effectively.

Individuals who are already struggling with symptoms of anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, might be experiencing aggravated effects at this time. It is important to reflect on any strategies that may have been helpful in the past, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques. CBT can help individuals to challenge their unhelpful and maladaptive thinking and behaviours through fact-finding and rational beliefs. 

Mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) strategies can help to calm how our body is responding to threatening news and events. MBT helps individuals to develop a non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. This can be particularly helpful amidst the uncertainty and lack of clarity of what the future will look like.

Many people are noticing a critical distrust at the community level. Online fighting and the impact of hoarding and panic buying are creating paranoia and suspicion. This is causing anxiety and stress for generally healthy individuals who would not have otherwise had concerns about their mental health.  

Another source of emerging stress is coming from the sudden mandate for self-isolation at home. A recent study of 1,006 Italians under COVID-19 quarantine found that increased mental health challenges can be seen in relation to the amount of space in the home. The less space that is available, the more challenged our mental health becomes. It was also found that the less access we have to connect with others in a remote way (video chat, teleconferencing, text, email), the more compromised our mental health becomes.

Most certainly, the financial devastation of sudden unemployment, business closures and economic instability is causing irreparable damage to families and communities. With this, we can expect to see increased risk of family conflict, marital breakdown, and domestic violence.

Seeking mental health support for yourself or connecting your loved ones with the support that they need is critical in order to develop the tools needed to cope with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  This is necessary in order to foster long-term wellness and resilience. 

If you are struggling to manage your mental health, consider the following strategies to help minimize the impacts:

Exposure to COVID-19 Content

Minimize watching, listening to, or reading news related to COVID-19.  Seek information from trusted local sources and authorities. Check news sources at reasonable intervals (only twice a day or only at certain times rather than spontaneously or on impulse).

Using Your Time

Be aware of what has been helpful and unhelpful for you in the past. If you are normally an active person but cannot leave your home due to self-isolation, commit to an online class for exercise, set some goals to learn a new skill or language through online instruction. There are several free options on YouTube, for example. Now is the time to start something new and fill idle time if you have any.

Pay Attention To Your Body

Mindfulness and relaxation apps can help to target how we regulate and calm our bodies during this unpredictable time.  We may be very aware of our thinking and the stress of what our current state is experiencing but it is very important to be aware of where our body is storing our emotions and the memories being created during this time. Prioritize time for relaxation and calming your nervous system when possible.

Finding a Balance

Seek a balance in the ways that you are coping. If you are avoiding negativity, give yourself permission to air your grievances when you need to.  Write in a journal, call or FaceTime a friend, organize a group video chat and release your frustrations. The people around you are likely struggling with similar challenges.  If you are finding that you are unable to cope in positive ways, reach out to a trusted support or a therapist (through video or telephone therapy) to help you find a balance.

Virtual Communities

Connection is everything right now. If you can not find connection within your immediate environment, connect with your community online.  Find a virtual community and make contact. It can make all the difference in your current mood as well as how you will move forward when this pandemic comes to an end. If you are currently well connected, seek out others who may struggle with the motivation and stamina to initiate their own contact. We are all in this together and we must collectively take responsibility for the well being of all of us because the impact is also collective.

Get Help

Mental health support is available and accessible through video and telephone platforms. Virtual mental health service is not a new concept and has been widely available for years. Consider accessing support with a registered mental health professional who can help you with individualized strategies at this time. 

Liz Khalighi is a registered social service worker and psychotherapist in private practice in Milton, Ontario.

Pancani, L., Marinucci, M., Aureli, N., & Riva, P. (2020). Forced social isolation and mental health: A study on 1006 Italians under COVID-19 quarantine.

Wang, C., Pan, R., Wan, X., Tan, Y., Xu, L., Ho, C. S., & Ho, R. C. (2020). Immediate psychological responses and associated factors during the initial stage of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) epidemic among the general population in China. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(5), 1729.

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