At the beginning of the pandemic, managing mental health meant managing the anxiety and new stressors due to the pandemic and lockdown. Now, though, several months into the pandemic, the feelings are a little different.
“There appears to be a fatigue surrounding the virus,” said Holly Bean, director of recreation and leisure studies at the University of Southern Maine. “People are tired of the quarantine and want some semblance of their previous life.”
Bean said that the loss of the staples of summer fun like concerts, dining out, barbecues, fairs and fireworks can lead to a sense of grief — or, in other cases, recklessness with public health.
“It appears that people are ready for the threat of virus spread to be over and they are acting on that impulse, although the spread of the virus has not slowed down,” Bean said. “This brings us to the concept of cognitive dissonance, which is the state of having beliefs or attitudes relating to behaviors or actions, in direct opposition to reality.”
Kathrine Butler Hepler, psychologist at the University of Maine Counseling Center, said that in her professional experience, she is seeing “anxiety, but a different kind of anxiety.”
“Not ‘what if I catch the COVID,’ more like ‘who am I, what am I doing, what does all this mean,’” Helper said. “There’s some existential anxiety about that. I’m seeing a lot more anger.”
These feelings are further exacerbated by other current events.
“We got hit with a second round of social upheaval in terms of the antiracism movement and everything else that’s been happening in the world,” said Jessica Browne, staff clinician and co-coordinator of outreach & prevention at the University of Maine Counseling Center.
Not to mention, Browne added, the uptick in coronavirus cases in certain parts of the United States.
“It’s almost like we’ve been bulldozed several times, just when people started catching their breath,” Browne said.
Whether you are feeling angry, isolated, burnt out or a combination of these and other feelings, here are some steps you can take to maintain your mental health at this stage of the pandemic.
Acknowledge where you are mentally
The first step to managing your mental health is to check in with your feelings. Are you lonely in isolation? Are you sad about an event you were looking forward to was canceled, even though you recognize it was for a good reason? Are you angry that there are people going out without masks when you had a loved one who suffered from COVID-19?
“Oftentimes, we fight against the truth of what’s happening,” Helper said. “You can’t move forward if you don’t start from where you are.”
Browne noted that though there are common threads in the emotions of this moment, the feelings are going to look different for everybody.
“Accepting that for yourself as part of self care,” Browne said.
From there, Helper said to start by practicing “a little self compassion.” Perhaps try meditating, journaling about your experience or speaking to yourself in the mirror in an affirming way. Whatever you choose to do, self compassion boils down to being kinder to yourself, accepting who you are and what you are feeling in this moment, regardless of how strange or flawed it may feel.
Find the “COVID silver linings”
Now that we have been living through the pandemic for some time, take a moment to recognize some of the good moments that have come as a result of the brave new world it has created — even if it is difficult at first.
“A lot of my students and clients are not sure how to hold both,” Browne said. “[People’s] worlds have been turned upside down and inside out. At the same time, they’re like, ‘Oh, but I reconnected with so-and-so,’ or, ‘I had this amazing Zoom experience playing ukulele with 10 other strangers.’”
Butler said that her daughter calls these moments “COVID silver linings.”
Practicing gratitude for moments like this is a tried-and-true practice for improving mental health. Research shows that gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, improve their health, deal with adversity and build strong relationships.
Stop comparing yourself to other people — for good and for bad
A big part of accepting where you are mentally and emotionally is to stop comparing your experience to the experiences of others.
“We’ve all been impacted kind of uniquely,” Browne said. “Allowing for that in our lives as opposed to engaging in comparative suffering and struggle because that leads to invalidating our own experiences. That constant, ‘Oh, I don’t have it as bad,’ that’s not helping you at all. [Practice] attuning to that, maybe sort of catching yourself.”
One way to cut back on comparisons is by logging off of social media.
“What people are posting on social media is what they filter to allow the world to see,” Helper said. “It’s not their whole experience. [Now] we have less contact when we’re seeing people less than usual, which impacts the lens that we get to have. It’s a very incomplete lens.”
Try setting small goals for your days and celebrating when you accomplish them.
“What are the one or two things that absolutely have to happen today?” Helper said. “Anything else on top of that is just bonus.”
Set boundaries with media
Staying up-to-date with the latest information is essential in the pandemic — especially when it is constantly changing — but Browne said to set limits to your engagement with stressful media.
“It fuels all the stuff we don’t want to feel: hypervigilance, anxiety, despair,” Browne said. “[Find] a routine that’s manageable and [allow] yourself to change that routine when it’s not working.”
On top of that, she suggested engaging with other media that helps you feel calm and balanced.
“[Try] connecting to your favorite podcast or blog that leaves you feeling sort of grounded and maybe gives you a sense of hope about the world,” Browne said. “[Allow] yourself to read a good book.”
Helper recommended a podcast called Science of Happiness.
“I encourage a lot of my clients [to listen to that],” she said. “[They] have happiness practices — folks can access that, and it’s free, and it works.”
Get physical outside
Incorporating a little movement in your daily routine — whether it is a walk through the woods by your house or YouTube workout video — will help relieve some of the pent-up anxiety.
“Get outside, get in nature, get some fresh air, move your body,” Helper said. “It releases all these happy little neurochemicals in your brain that allow you to release stress.”
Helper emphasized the mental health benefits of outdoor activity, which research has shown reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increases the production of happy-making endorphins. Plus, outdoor recreation provides many possibilities for fun that are in line the recommendations for social distancing still in place.
“Going kayaking, you’re in separate kayaks; going for a bike ride, you’re already going to be six feet apart,” Helper said. “[Find] things that you can do outdoors where the risk of transmission is lower.”
Find new ways to connect with others
Even though the state has reopened in many sectors, the sense of isolation lingers on.
“We need other humans,” Helper said. “Find ways to do that and grow that in your life, even if it’s a little unconventional. Get creative.”
Do you have Zoom burnout? Helper said to try giving your friend a call on the telephone. Browne added that handwriting letters or cards can be another great way to connect.
Be open to new things
Browne said to recognize that this moment has brought with it a whole new set of challenges, and being open to new things — or giving things another try — is a good idea.
“This is new,” Browne said. “We don’t have a handbook on how to handle or navigate a pandemic. Things are hard and confusing. Be gentle with yourself.”