Preserving Mental Health in an Era of COVID-19 Health Concerns

As the pandemic continues to ramp up for the winter, even as the hope of a vaccine looms on the horizon, it is becoming clear that COVID-19 has rendered much more than infectious disease concerns into our communities.  On the top of the list of the pandemic’s ancillary outcomes are increased mental health difficulties, including in the workplace.  A recent study indicates that 35% of employees nationwide are dealing with depression midst the pandemic, but few are actually seeking out professional assistance.

A closer examination points to a few revealing statistics.  One, it appears that the youngest generation of employees, including those from Generation Z, are struggling most especially when compared to their elder counterparts (Baby Boomers).  This includes reported two to three times more reported difficulty concentrating on their work while also feeling burnt out or emotionally drained by their job.  Findings also indicate that women more than men are reporting challenges with inattention and reduced energy while 65% of those employees who report feeling chronically distracted at work are those living with a vulnerable individual.  Meanwhile, of those citing depressive-related symptoms, only 1 in 10 has reached out to a colleague and only 7% have sought professional help. 

As bad as COVID-19 might have been for the country’s physical health and well-being, evidence is increasingly mounting that the long-term mental health outcomes might be worse if we don’t prioritize this in the weeks and months ahead.  To do this, we must first begin with the “Big 4” as they relate to mental health:  sleep, diet, activity, and screen/tech time.  There are now into the thousands of studies that indicate these areas have direct impact on our psychological functioning, and no doubt the pandemic has only magnified this.  For starters, with all of these, it is critical to note that while it may be hard to control certain outcomes (e.g., getting more sleep tonight), what is always available to us is our habits—the processes –we employ which can make a difference, for the short and long-term.  With Advent soon upon us, this is a great time to start anew.

Let’s take exercise.  No matter where you are at, pick a simple, reasonable goal and commit yourself to it.  It might be adding a 20 minute walk in the morning twice a week, or increasing your typical time on the exercise bike by ten minutes.  For dietary purposes, the goal is always to increase water intake and that of whole, natural foods.  So, it might be pledging to yourself to have one completely natural meal a day (I love my oatmeal, bananas, walnuts, cinnamon, and moringa every morning) or only drinking water at least two days a week.  Sleep changes might be just going to bed 10 minutes earlier than usual and really making a push to shut off all tech 30 minutes before bedtime (which tends to make it hard to fall asleep).  And finally, when it comes to screen time, maybe it is just limiting yourself to 10 minutes of “doomscrolling” a day, or only looking at the news every other day.  Whatever the goal, it must be reasonable and practical in comparison to your current habits in order for it to have a chance to become a part of a more healthy routine. 

Beyond the big 4, we must increasingly work to cultivate a few specific mindsets, as I noted in a prior article .  As Victor Frankl—a man who almost lost his entire family in the Holocaust while narrowly surviving himself—once said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedomsꟷto choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances.”  And so it is if we are to address unavoidable challenges with the pandemic.  We must work to foster 3 key perspectives in us and our children:  gratitude versus disappointment, empathy versus self-absorption, and challenge versus despair.  It is perfectly normal to feel the latter in all three perspectives, but it is critically important to continuously and intentionally re-orient ourselves to the former if we are to be resilient in our current situation. 

With the framework of the “Big 4” and the foundation of the three perspectives noted, one other significant focus remains paramount.  That is the opportunity of NOW, and it doesn’t change whether you are sitting in prison or lying in a hospital bed.  All of us need to plan for the future and be aware of the past.  But when our heart and soul is in anywhere but now, it is both overwhelming and immobilizing, and is a huge factor in why psychological conditions develop. 

Take for instance the psychological conditions of depression and anxiety. Depression is the state of hopelessness that things will not change from the dismal situation that has been; anxiety is the state of helplessness to alter a future full of distress and disharmony.  All of us who have experienced them to varying degrees know that now gets lost in the shuffle.  Take the travesties of addiction.  What you find is that the compulsions and urges of the substance (or habit) are conceived in the inability to harness (or deal with) the present opportunity at hand, for a fix that has been and seems must come again.  Anyone who has experienced an addiction knows that the withdrawal from (the past) and the compulsion within (for the future) drive anything but a present-minded decision, even if the momentary release or euphoria calms an otherwise distracted, unsettled mind.

All of this tells us that no matter where you find yourself in regards to the pandemic, any positive movement will require mindful discernment of what is needed at this moment.  Maybe that means a simple, cleansing breath and a minute of silence are in order a one or more a day.  Maybe it means reaching out to a colleague or supervisor, and sharing honestly about the difficulties that are plaguing you.  Maybe this means taking advantage of EAP services at work, or contacting a therapist.  Or maybe, it means leaving your phone at home, and taking a walk to begin or end your day.  2020 seems to have no limit on stressful possibilities, but the promise of our lives—pandemic or otherwise—is that every moment presents options to a different, happier course no matter where we have been, and what lies ahead. 

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