The past 2+ years were anything but normal, which certainly took a toll on everyone’s mental health. As we work to move past our collective trauma, let’s focus on tactics that will help us heal.
Prevalence of mental health issues
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic upended our lives, mental health issues took a toll. According to Mental Health America’s 2022 State of Mental Health in America report, nearly 20% of adult Americans were living with a mental illness in 2019, before the pandemic started. More than half were untreated. In addition, suicidal thoughts and substance use rates were already increasing year over year.
When our lives turned upside down, seemingly overnight, rates of mental illness skyrocketed. Mental Health America notes that during the first nine months of 2020, the number of people seeking an online screening for anxiety nearly doubled from 2019. The number screening for depression went up by 62%. Rates of suicidal ideation also climbed dramatically, with 37% of people reporting thoughts of suicide nearly every day in September 2020. And most of those people were seriously struggling, with 80% registering severe symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Things have settled down somewhat as vaccines and treatments have allowed much of normal life to resume. But it will take a long time to return to baseline. In March 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a brief on the global mental health impacts of the pandemic. Worldwide, rates of major depression have increased by 27.6%, while anxiety disorders are up by 25.6%. As expected, areas hardest hit by the pandemic report the biggest increases. Women, young adults, and those facing other life issues such as preexisting health conditions or low income appear to be at higher risk.
Signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression
How do you know if what you’re feeling is worth noting? Anxiety and depression symptoms are generally easy to recognize, but it’s important to note that not everyone will experience all signs. Here are some things to look for:
- Nervousness or restlessness
- Sense of impending doom
- Feeling of being out of control
- Rapid breathing or heart rate
- Trembling; Sweating
- Obsessive or racing thoughts
- Stomach or intestinal distress
- Avoiding things that might trigger anxiety
- Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Persistent sad, hopeless, or anxious mood
- Irritability, being on ‘edge’ and prone to anger
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Difficulty sleeping, early morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Difficulty concentrating, and making decisions
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Backaches, headaches, or other unexplained physical ailments
- Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
The importance of self-care
Self-care has been essential throughout the pandemic, and it remains highly valuable as we emerge into a new normal. Self-care cannot replace professional care for those who suffer from moderate to severe mental health conditions. But if you’re experiencing milder symptoms or are already under professional care and looking for additional resources, self-care can help you feel significantly better.
Caring for yourself means looking after not just your mind and body but also your spirit. Here are some ways to cope.
Helping your mind relax will go a long way toward lowering symptoms of both anxiety and depression. Self-care ideas for your mind include:
- Turn off the news (and social media). There’s a lot going on right now, and our 24-hour news cycle puts negativity center stage. Remember the old saying in the news business, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Meanwhile, social media is more polarized than ever, and arguments over everything from mask-wearing to foreign wars are common. Know when to turn it all off and walk away.
- Stick to a routine. Early in the pandemic, our daily routines were entirely upended by stay-at-home orders. Things are largely back to normal now, but you may still feel the effects of being disrupted. Even if you can’t fully return to your 2019 routines, find a new normal. Your routine should include sleeping the same hours each night, keeping regular mealtimes and work hours, and carving out time for hobbies and other enjoyable events.
- There are never enough hours in the day for everything we want to accomplish, and that’s okay. Figure out what’s truly important, and then let the rest of it go.
- Get busy. Too many empty hours mean too much time for your mind to spiral. Fill your time with things you love. If you’re not entirely feeling it, do it anyway. Changing your behavior can help bring your thoughts and feelings around.
- Talk it out. Reach out to a supportive relative or friend. Let them know how you’re feeling. Sometimes simply talking through your feelings can help you process them. Also, consider starting a journal. Writing everything out on paper by hand can help you work through intense emotions. Later, if you want, you can return to your written pages to reflect and find common themes.
The better your physical health, the more resilient you will be. Focus on these areas:
- Improve your nutrition. Eating a variety of nutritious foods, with a special emphasis on filling your plate with a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, will help your body thrive.
- Get some exercise. Shoot for 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five days per week. This could include walking, biking, or simply doing household chores.
- Work on your sleep patterns. The average adult needs at least seven hours of sleep per night. If you’re having trouble sleeping, turn off screens and cut out caffeine at least two hours before bed. If you’re awake at night, try reading or journaling until you feel sleepy again.
- Make smart COVID-19 decisions. Although society has largely returned to normal, the virus is still with us. Get vaccinated, get boosted, and if you’re over 50 or immunocompromised, get a second booster. Consider keeping up with mask-wearing in crowded environments, especially if you have any underlying health conditions.
Do whatever touches your soul, whether prayer, meditation, or yoga. Rebuild relationships that you may have neglected during the shutdowns. Find ways to lend your support to others. Start a gratitude journal. Exactly what you do isn’t as important as tapping into what makes you feel spiritually nourished, however you define that.
Self-care can go a long way toward helping you feel better. But if you have a serious mental health condition, it’s imperative to seek professional help. Signs that it’s time to seek help include, but are not limited to:
- Active thoughts of suicide, especially if you’ve started making a plan
- Inability to function at work, at school, or in your personal life
- Uncontrollable physical symptoms
- Worsening avoidance of specific triggers or the world at large
Anxiety and depression rates skyrocketed during the pandemic. If you’re among the millions experiencing mental health issues, it’s time to start taking care of yourself. Self-care can go a long way, but don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you continue to struggle.