The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented crisis that has changed the world as we know it. What started in the Hubei province in China spread at an accelerated rate to countries all over the world. The entire world has been forced to retreat into the confines of their homes to protect themselves against the virus at all costs. As the number of fatalities mounts, the overwhelming stress, anxiety, fear, and panic has caused people to feel constantly unsettled.
While there has been much reportage on the best ways to keep oneself protected against the coronavirus, the focus on mental health at a time like this also needs to be discussed at length. Yes, social distancing and self-quarantining is imperative at a time like this, but have we stopped to wonder how such long periods of alone time can impact our mental health?
Research published in Lancet that studied literature on the psychological impact of quarantine during previous epidemics like SARS found proof of a range of psychological conditions. This included post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, anger, depression, stress, insomnia, and emotional exhaustion. Spending such extended periods of time away from social interaction is bound to have some kind impact on our mental health.
While nearly everyone will face some form of stress and anxiety because of the global situation, some individuals might see a severe decline in their mental health.
A global pandemic evokes a range of emotions
At a time like this, people have lost loved ones, their jobs and a sense of stability. The inherent dread and uncertainty regarding the future is what lies at the root of mental health issues during this time. It is extremely important, therefore, to be in touch with one’s feelings and address them.
David Kessler, an expert on death and grieving, spoke to the Harvard Business Review about a collective sense of grief that has swept the world. He says: “We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving.”
Who are the most susceptible to mental health problems during this time?
The coronavirus pandemic has made the promise of a tomorrow seem hollow. For the foreseeable future, nothing is going to be like it was in the past. This state of uncertainty has caused people to feel a range of emotions. The most common mental health problems at this time could include a wide range of negative emotional states like anger, sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, frustration, and irritation. Depression is also highly likely.
According to Lalpeki Ralte, a professional psychologist, “The most susceptible to develop mental health issues during this period are the ones who have pre-existing mental health issues or people who are highly prone to anxiety and stress. I also think that people who have existing medical conditions will be susceptible too. These medical problems could bring about mental health issues such as depression, substance abuse, sleep problems or even personality disorders.”
Tanvi Baluja, a clinical psychology trainee believes that certain age groups are more susceptible to mental health problems. She says, “Older adults who are also more susceptible to adverse consequences of the disease are at greater risk as are those with cognitive decline/dementia.”
She adds, “The upheaval may cause worsening of symptoms like anxiety, agitation and irritability. Being at an impressionable age, children may also find it difficult to cope with the change in routine and confusion regarding what is happening around. Instances of child abuse and domestic violence may also shoot up during this period. The poor and homeless are another vulnerable section experiencing stress, worry and isolation.”
While it is more likely for people with preexisting conditions to have a difficult time coping during this period, other individuals might also experience abnormal levels of stress and anxiety.
What are the best ways to cope with stress, anxiety and panic?
An individual might feel overwhelmed with their symptoms, especially since they are in quarantine. At such a time, there are a number of ways one can maintain a sense of balance and normalcy and keep negative emotions and thoughts in check. Some of the most common, effective ways of coping include maintaining a sense of routine, engaging in self-care regularly and keeping in touch with friends and family members. Expressing oneself at this time helps keep uneven waves of emotion in check. Therefore, talking to someone about your feelings and using art to express yourself can help significantly.
Deepika Nambiar, a Clinical Psychologist, says: “Self-care should be given importance, this includes basic things like proper sleep, exercise, and others. Keeping some structure and routine in their day-to-day life is also crucial. Spending quality time with family, like watching TV shows or movies and cultivating new hobbies can help as well.”
Tanvi adds, “Practicing Progressive Muscular Relaxation which involves clenching and releasing specific muscle groups-one at a time, is also highly beneficial. Other creative ways could be drawing mandalas, doodling with soft music and exploring new hobbies. Since this period causes schedules to be out of whack, it is important to consciously maintain one and follow good sleep hygiene.”
We also tend to spend a lot of time on social media and are over-stimulated with the wealth of information available about COVID-19. Staying constantly updated can have its drawbacks. Taking time off from the news will help keep stress and anxiety at bay.
What is the long-term impact on mental health due to this pandemic?
Struggling with one’s mental health during isolation is a challenge but will this continue once the pandemic ends as well? Will there be permanent damage to one’s psyche as a result of such upheaval in the world?
Tanvi says: “A vast majority of the population will have a smooth transition back to “normal”/ Pre-COVID life. However, for some, this pandemic would have long-lasting mental health implications due to disruption of daily life and accompanying isolation. Some of the common long-term consequences could be post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression, anxiety and substance use. Unemployment, financial loss, loss of loved ones and other socio-economic impacts of the pandemic could also lead to a sense of detachment, difficulty concentrating, insomnia and acute stress reaction.”
Each and every individual is finding ways to manage their reactions to stress and anxiety during this time. While we may not be able to say for sure how our mental health is going to be affected post COVID-19, it is of the utmost importance that we continue to cultivate habits that keep any negative feelings in check. In more severe cases, reaching out to a healthcare professional is always the best solution. “Online therapy sessions and telephonic counselling are very common for anxiety or any kind of psychological distress, one just has to go beyond the stigma and seek help. For those already seeking treatment, it is of utmost importance to maintain medical compliance and reach out for professional help when needed,” confirms Tanvi.