Tuesday, March 28, 2023

As you may expect, COVID-19 has been accompanied by a significant uptick in mental health concerns in many ways, in virtually all affected populations. Increases in anxiety and depression, with their associated feelings of loneliness, sadness and general negative state of mind, are abundant. These are related to the illness itself—fear of getting sick, worry and sadness about loved ones and others who are sick; and also to COVID’s impact on life—anxiety about finances, inability to socialize, leading to isolation and other ancillary effects. There has been an increase in reports of alcohol and drug abuse, as people sometimes turn to substances to try to lessen these negative emotions. However, of course, this usually just makes things worse. Some addictions, such as alcohol and tobacco, are also associated with worse medical outcomes from getting COVID-19 due to changes in lung function and immune response, along with other complications.

In addition to COVID-19, there are, of course, many other world events that are further exacerbating these mental health concerns. As these factors have converged, it becomes increasingly important to address emotional health, and this is something I find myself working on with more people every week. So here are some brief points to consider in making sure you stay as emotionally healthy as possible. Each of these can have a whole article written about it, and if you have any questions about anything specific, feel free to reach out to me by email or WhatsApp.

Self-care is one important way to lessen the impact of any negative situation. Physically, getting enough quality sleep, physical activity and maintaining a good diet are some basic things you can do to feel your best. Emotional self-care is another important topic. Making sure you don’t ignore your own feelings can sometimes seem hard to do, but it’s very important.

Set reasonable goals, and check in with them often. This is something I focus on extensively in my work—identifying individual goals and helping my clients work towards these goals in a slow, consistent and measurable way. Noticing the progress you make will help you feel accomplished and will decrease the ability of “negative thinking patterns” to minimize the good things you do.

Maintain a routine and schedule as much as possible, even when you don’t otherwise have to. Research shows that people who have a consistent schedule are more mentally healthy. Having meals, sleep and work at consistent times is important, and even things like bathing, exercise and hobbies should be structured. The predictability of these events offsets the uncertainty of the world, and decreases negative emotions. Also, maintain functional structure, and only do things in a healthy place. Screen time is one example—try to avoid screens at least 60 minutes before bed; this will improve your quality of sleep. Try to avoid screens or doing other mentally taxing tasks in bed, so you associate it with rest and can fall asleep easier.

Stay busy—find new hobbies or build on current ones. This allows you to stay occupied with positive thoughts, and to feel productive and accomplished. This can also help you avoid social isolation by allowing you to build connections with others around topics that interest you, and find support from others in similar settings and situations. You can also find others who are looking to give and receive emotional support. I run several support groups on Zoom and WhatsApp, and there are many others available, often at low cost or even free. Look around; you’ll find others similar to you who want to connect.

Find ways to be helpful to others. There’s a tremendous amount of research indicating that kindness, altruism and helping others increase emotional health, often much more than other life changes. Find ways you can contribute to people in your life who need help. This also can change a perception of victimhood to one of effectiveness, and will make you feel better about yourself.

These are just a few basic tips. It’s important to recognize that no matter what you do, and even if you do everything I’ve described perfectly, you still may feel emotionally unwell during this stressful and difficult time. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging this, and it doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong.

This is a very stressful time for many reasons, and feeling anxious, sad and upset is normal and understandable. Reaching out to those around you for help is something that can be hard to do, but ultimately is usually the best choice. People who care about you want to help. And getting professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist doesn’t mean you’re weak or a failure. Ultimately, living your life as effectively and happily as possible is the most important thing, and getting help when you need it is the best thing you can do to move in this direction.

Dr. Alan Winder is a clinical psychologist with 15+ years experience. He works with individuals and couples, and uses a solution-focused, practical style to achieve effective results. He also is a certified divorce mediator and specializes in all matters related to separation/divorce. Dr. Winder sees clients in his office in Highland Park, and also offers video sessions. Book your free consultation at www.drwinder.com 

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