Why COVID Affects Your Mental Health and What You Can Do About It
With all the upheaval going on in the world it is not surprising that experts are sounding the alarm on mental health concerns. The current world health crisis has impacted three specific areas, that, under normal circumstances work to support and enhance feelings of wellbeing and overall life satisfaction. These include, simple routines, social and family connections and positive economic and job prospects.
Canadians right across the country have felt the impact of COVID on one or more of these areas and the pausing of foundational structures within our society can naturally lead to an increased sense of isolation and disorientation.
While some people may only be experiencing impact in one area, many are experiencing disruptions to their whole way of life. From parents struggling to work from home while their toddlers are pouring cereal on their laptops to small businesses not knowing how they are going to pay their staff or rent, these are certainly disorienting times.
It is so important now more than ever that we are checking in on each other while also ensuring that our own self-care routines are on point.
Mental health issues may not be overtly noticeable until they have gotten to the point of crisis so it is important to recognize the early warning signs in ourselves and our loved ones.
Here is a simple short checklist to some early warning signs to be watching for.
It is also vital that we prioritize our own self-care strategies because we cannot help others who are depending on us if we, ourselves, are struggling to stay afloat.
Here are FIVE proven strategies for maintaining mental health and wellbeing during times of upheaval. If we can focus on the things we CAN control, rather than the things we can’t, we give ourselves a much better chance at lowering negative outcomes of stress.
1. Get out in nature
As we head into the colder season we will naturally be spending more time indoors. However, this is not the time to hibernate and avoid the fresh air and sunlight. Getting outside in nature has been proven to promote health and feelings of wellbeing.
The Japanese have a practice called Shinrinyoku or “forest bathing” which involves intentional time in nature. Research has shown that “forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.”
If you can’t get routinely get out of the city, at least get out for a daily walk in the fresh air, or play in the leaves or build a snowman with your kids. It will lighten your mood and get you a bit of exercise and fun family time. (Pro tip: kids sleep GREAT after being outside!)
2. Find a routine that works for you
Having a routine, no matter how simple, can help to bring structure and purpose into our day. When our routine has been completely disrupted or we are no longer leaving the house it can be tempting to stay in our pjs, eat junk food and stop exercising. All of these things can have a negative impact on our mental health.
Being productive leads to feelings of wellbeing and having a routine ensures that we have a reason to get out of bed.
Drinking a big glass or water, cooking regular, healthy meals, and making time for exercise are some of the best things to add to our routine to support mental health.
3. Make sleep a priority
When we start sliding on our routine this begins to impact our sleep schedule. If we don’t need to be out of bed at a certain time in the morning we may start to stay up later, watching TV or browsing online. This increased exposure to artificial blue light can impact our production of melatonin and throw our sleep/wake cycles out of sync.
Other things that can lead to poorer quality sleep include drinking alcohol, having a cluttered bedroom, using a bedroom as a work/office space, having a partner or pets in the room, or trying to sleep in a room that is too warm.
Poor quality or lack of sleep can lead to emotional and physiological stress and exacerbate mental health issues so it is vital to make good sleep habits a priority.
4. Stay connected
Not being able to socialize or see some loved ones as often as we would like can lead to feelings of isolation. Isolation and lack of community connection is a big contributing factor to both increased addictive behavior and mental health crises.
We must become creative in our efforts to stay connected. Video calls and outdoor socially distanced get togethers can help to fill the void of regular get-togethers at least partially. With the shuttering of religious and community gatherings it is important that those who are most vulnerable to isolation are not forgotten.
Get-togethers may currently involve more work and proper planning but we need this connection to stay healthy.
5. Practice gratitude
One of the biggest factors that impact stress and anxiety is perspective. It has become such a cliché to remind people to “be positive”. Telling a depressed or anxious person that they just need to change their perspective can be more hurtful than helpful as it comes across dismissive and uncaring. This is why a daily time of intentional gratitude may be more practical.
A randomized clinical trial conducted with 1,337 participants found that gratitude intervention managed to increase positive affect, subjective happiness and life satisfaction, and reduce negative affect and depression symptoms.
An intentional time of gratitude can be added into a routine of self-care at any point in the day but most people prefer first thing in the morning or right before bed. Simply voice out loud or journal out 5-10 things that you are grateful for.
These don’t need to be life altering things. Something as simple as “I enjoyed my coffee, “ or “traffic was good today” can shift our perspective from looking for all the small, annoying things that go wrong in a day to all the small, amazing things that go right.
The other cool thing about gratitude is that we cannot hold a grateful thought and an anxious thought in our mind at the same time so gratitude can offer a temporary respite from overwhelming or anxious thoughts.
BONUS TIP: What about supplements?
Along with these five self-care tips, it is also important to consider taking vitamins or other nutrients to support mental wellbeing. Nootropics and Adaptogens are types of nutrients that many Canadians have found to be an essential part of their mental health strategy. For more information, check out our SHINE blog on The 5 Best Science Backed Natural Supplements to Improve Your Mental Health
If we can focus on making one or more of these self-care actions a priority we will be helping support both our physical and mental wellbeing during this time of life disruption.
When we are in a better place mentally, emotionally and physically this allows us a greater ability to support others in our lives who may be struggling. When we take care of ‘one’ the ‘whole’ naturally becomes healthier. We are in this together!
Kathy Ryan is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist with over 15 years experience in the health and wellness industry. Her primary focus has been on women's health including weight management, hormone and autoimmune issues. Over the years she has had opportunity to work with and learn from some of the leading natural health experts in these areas.