The Invisible Burden: COVID-19 and Emotional Wellness

In the wake of COVID-19, a second, more insidious public health crisis has swept the country.

An alarming trend.

The emotional fallout of COVID-19 has been explored in tandem with the pandemic by scientists and health professionals worldwide—and perhaps to no surprise, anxiety, and depression are skyrocketing. The CDC found that 41% of survey respondents reported at least one symptom of anxiety, depression, or trauma- or stressor-related disorders (four times higher than the year prior). In an April survey, the number of Americans reporting serious psychological distress was three-times more elevated than that reported in 2018. Drug overdoses and alcohol consumption have increased as well.

It seems clear: we are suffering. But understanding that a problem exists is not the same as addressing it. Many people are still struggling to cope with the upheaval the pandemic has wrought. These might be your friends, neighbors, people in your household—maybe even you.

It’s like fight or flight on steroids.

Illness, job loss, and domestic violence top the list of pandemic mental health triggers. But even those who haven’t experienced an acute crisis are not immune. The biological response to ongoing stress can cause physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, and rashes—which in turn cause even more stress. Chronic daily stress can snowball, causing mental fatigue, exhaustion, and burnout that could eventually lead to clinical depression. Dealing with childcare and virtual learning, disruption to routine, social isolation, safety concerns, political turmoil, and financial strain are just a few of the low-level pandemic stressors that may fly under the radar. In December, holiday stress and seasonal blues add fuel to the fire.

Some of us are more vulnerable than others.

Certain groups might be more at risk, such as those who work in the healthcare field and minority groups, who are also more at risk from the novel coronavirus and additionally may be dealing with the emotional burden of racial inequality and unrest. Women and young adults report disproportionate rates of anxiety and depression. Your child or teen could be experiencing increased anxiety and depression too—especially given the absence of social interaction so crucial to their development—and may need help with coping skills.

Occasional sadness and stress are normal, especially given this heady COVID cocktail of abnormality. But certain red flags point to a more serious mental health issue. Take heed of extreme irritability, eating or sleeping more or less than usual, increased substance use, and lack of interest in hobbies and friends. But even normal levels of stress can impact executive functioning, dampen creativity, and make us more reactionary and forgetful. Plus, emerging evidence suggests stress may be a pre-existing condition that makes COVID-19 worse. It’s critical to take steps toward mental self-care.

A whole new meaning for “take care.”

What’s that’s good for the body is good for mental health too. Just think SEEDS: social connection, exercise, education, diet, and sleep. Social interaction is more important than ever, especially if you live alone. Please find a way to do it that is both COVID-safe and feels good to you (Zoom calls aren’t everyone’s happy place!). A regular routine helps too.

If that feels like a tall order, try cultivating simple mindfulness practices. It doesn’t have to be 30 minutes of silent meditation. Aim for small ways to be present in the moment. Go outside for fresh air in the middle of the day. Laugh at a silly joke. Thank a friend for their support. Doodle on a scrap of paper. Listen to a great song. Compliment a stranger (at a safe physical distance, of course!). And if you feel a surge of stress overtake you, try this trick: take a deep breath and make the exhale even longer than the inhale. It slows down the heart rate and instantly calms the nervous system.

Don’t forget that whatever you’re going through, you’re very likely not alone. Keep an eye out for troubling signs from your loved ones too.

Finally, know that help is always available. Reach out to a therapist, insurance company, or primary care provider anytime you become overwhelmed. QueensCare Health Centers providers are always standing by to help you be well in both body and mind.