If it feels like you’ve aged 20 years over the course of the year 2020, you’re not alone.
In fact, in a survey published by JAMA Network on September 2, 2020, the prevalence of depression symptoms was higher in every category during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as compared to before the pandemic started. The findings suggest that the prevalence of depression symptoms in the U.S. are more than three times higher during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to before the pandemic. The survey also found that those with lower social resources, lower economic resources and greater exposure to stressors reported a higher amount of depression symptoms.
THE NEW NORMAL
While times are certainly tough, there are plenty of ways to be proactive about your stressors/mental health and adjust to the new—if not, temporary—normal.
The first? Normalizing the discussion around mental health and the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had. If the results from the JAMA survey taught us anything, it’s that we’re all in this together—meaning that it’s totally normal to be struggling! This is a once in a 100 years pandemic, so of course it’s going to be a rough transition that we have not been previously equipped to handle. That’s why it’s so important to erase the stigma and create an open dialogue about all the stressors, and mental health issues, that come along with this unprecedented time. Once we can do that, we make room for accessing mental health resources and tools, including therapy, shame free.
SLEEP + STRESS
“Stress is both good and bad to have,” says Dr. Scott Hamstra, infectious disease specialist and medical advisor to STChealth. “In people, stress helps to build strength—think of lifting weights and how you can gradually get stronger by working out over time. Yet, too much acute stress and chronic stress (continuous stress) is not healthy either. We need periods of activity and periods of rest.”
Rest, as Dr. Hamstra points out, can be quite literal.
“Sleep is key to our innate immune system and its ability to respond to infection. While seven to nine hours of sleep per night is recommended, between 30-40% of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep.”
Dr. Hamstra adds that not getting enough sleep can contribute to chronic stress.
“Chronic stress raises hormone levels—hormones that are part of the fight or flight response,” he explains. “This is a good thing when we have to run to escape from a tiger, but not good to have surging for prolonged periods. The bottom line is that too much stress, especially chronic stress, and too little sleep weakens your immune system and puts you at risk for infection and disease.”
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
In a 2015 study conducted by Harvard Medical School, researchers compared the brain activity of “healthy people” after they walked for 90 minutes in a nature setting versus an urban setting. The study found that participants who walked in the nature setting had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is a brain region responsible for repetitive thoughts focusing on negative emotions. If the great outdoors aren’t accessible, listening to nature sounds can have a similarly therapeutic effect, according to a report by Scientific Reports that was published online on March 27, 2017.
“While I would avoid gyms, the outside has so much to offer,” explains Dr. Kyle Freese, Chief Epidemiologist at STChealth. “Go play golf, go hike, go bike—there’s so many things you can do. We know that Vitamin D is really important for helping to prevent severe illness from SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), so getting some sunshine is a way of taking care of yourself too. There’s ways of protecting yourself from COVID-19 but also enjoying life. Making sure that you are taking care of yourself emotionally and mentally as well as physically is really important.”
Dr. Freese adds that while the outside is great and significantly less risky than indoor activities in regards to COVID-19 exposure, it’s important to continue to socially distance no matter what environment you’re in.
As a human species, we thrive on connection. This is a large reason why the coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted our collective mental health and wellbeing. That’s why it’s important to remember that while we need to remain socially distanced as much as possible, we don’t have to be socially isolated. Fortunately, we can reach out to friends, family and colleagues instantaneously thanks to cell phones, social media and Zoom. Don’t be afraid to reach out, even if it’s been awhile, as well as schedule virtual hangouts. Another great option is to join online communities focused on your interests.
These strange times also present a unique opportunity to slow down a bit and get to know yourself, as well as your household, better.
Remember—you are not alone.
THE BIG PICTURE
Dr. Kyle Freese offers some sage advice to keep in mind during the pandemic,
“I always remind people that COVID-19 a temporary thing,” he says. “We don’t know exactly how temporary, but this virus isn’t going to be with us forever. So, I think that some sacrifices early on in the cycle will pay dividends later on. The more opportunities we give the virus to exist in the population, the more likely it is to persist for a longer period of time. So, if people can make some sacrifices now it will be a good return on investment.”
Ultimately, while at times it may feel the coronavirus pandemic may never end, like all prior pandemics, it will.
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