By Jacquelyn Buffo, MS, LPC, CAADC
Prior to 2020, it may be fair to say that the only time we ever heard or uttered the word corona was in reference to an alcoholic beverage. Nowadays, we hear the word regularly. Coronavirus, or COVID-19, has made its way onto the global scene and has altered our existence in many ways. Faced with uncertainty and feelings of confusion, we must learn how to navigate our new normal as best as we can. For many of us, the changes brought by COVID-19 have us struggling to maintain our health and wellness.
The changes and uncertainty that come with COVID-19 have caused an increase in stress for many people. Stress can negatively impact your life in various ways. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, stress can cause the following:
- A change in sleep, including difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased use of mind-altering substances including alcohol and other drugs
- A change in eating habits including overeating or undereating
- Excessive fear and worry about your health or the health of loved ones
- A decline in physical health
If you have noticed any of the above-mentioned changes, you are not alone. Changes in sleep, eating, and cognitive functions can be a sign that your mental health requires some attention. You can take specific actions to reduce stress and improve your mental health as you navigate these unchartered times.
With minute-by-minute updates, it can feel like the news about COVID-19 is unrelenting. It is important to be strategic and manage the amount of time you allow yourself to read and watch news about the virus. Plan a specific time of the day that you will allow yourself to watch the news or read about COVID-19. Make sure that it is not the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning because that can set the tone for your mental health for the rest of the day.
Also, limit the amount of time you spend informing yourself about the virus. We have all experienced moments where we became swept up in the latest information, and minutes turn into hours. Limit the amount of time by setting a timer; 10, 20, or 30 minutes is sufficient. When the timer goes off, take a break and switch to another activity. The news isn’t going anywhere.
Our minds and our bodies are inextricably linked. When one is struggling, the other is likely being negatively impacted. Focusing on your physical health can ensure you are supporting your mental health. The following behaviors can help improve your mental health:
- Exercise regularly. Exercise has been proven to improve sleep, reduce anxiety and depression, and lower stress.
- Stay hydrated. Studies show that even mild dehydration can have a negative impact on your overall mood, including increasing your vulnerability to fatigue and anxiety. This is especially true for women.
- Maintain a healthy sleep regime. Sleep problems, including sleep deprivation, can make you more susceptible to developing various mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
- Avoid mood-altering substances, including alcohol and drugs. These can exacerbate or cause mental health symptoms.
- Eat healthy foods. Limit overly processed foods and foods high in sugar, which can worsen mental health disorders such as depression.
- Take your medication as directed. Be sure to follow up with your primary care and mental health providers.
You can employ other actions or “skills” to regularly improve your mental health. These include:
- Practicing mindfulness daily. Studies show that mindfulness can alleviate stress and anxiety. If you are new to mindfulness, you can look up free YouTube videos that explain mindfulness and provide free guided mindfulness videos.
- Creating and following a new routine. With the change in your day-to-day life, now is a perfect time to alter your routine in a way that suits your new normal.
- Engaging in a pleasant activity every day. Intentionally engaging in activities that generate positive emotions such as happiness, peace, calm, and joy can help reduce depression symptoms.
- Building mastery. Building mastery means engaging in an activity each day that helps you feel more in control of your life. Clean out that closet bursting at the seams or complete that online training that you have been putting off for work. While such tasks may not always be enjoyable, when you are finished with them you will likely feel a sense of accomplishment and relief.
- Staying connected with friends and family. Use online video platforms such as Zoom, Houseparty, FaceTime, and Skype to maintain connections during this time of social distancing.
Related content: Connecting with Friends and Family During Social Distancing Free Virtual Conferencing Platforms
Above all, be kind to yourself. Show yourself patience, tolerance, and compassion. Know that you are doing the best that you can during a time that can feel overwhelming and uncertain. Try to find the positives in your reality, no matter how small they may seem. Remember, not only are you not alone, you can take action to help improve your mood and mental health.
Jacquelyn Buffo is a licensed professional counselor with experience and expertise in substance abuse and mental health issues. She received her MS in mental health counseling from Capella University and is a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor through the state of Michigan. She is also in the process of receiving her certification in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Jacquelyn has experience working with clients suffering from addiction and mental health issues on an in-home, residential, and outpatient basis. Currently, she works with adolescents and adults with Borderline Personality Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, PTSD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder through Henry Ford Health System.