After the SARS pandemic in 2003, a study was conducted on 129 quarantined people to find out the effects of the pandemic on their mental health. 28.9% of subjects were found to have PTSD, and 31.2% had symptoms of depression. And the longer the quarantine, the worse things got.
But chances are, you might not even remember the SARS pandemic; so imagine the mental and emotional toll of a pandemic with the historical proportions we are experiencing today with the coronavirus.
“I have seen a pretty significant uptake in both depression and anxiety in the pandemic,” says Laine DiStefano, a licensed therapist from North Texas.
Maybe you weren’t struggling with your mental health before the pandemic, but COVID-19 is hitting everyone's mental health in some major ways.
“Wherever we were emotionally before the pandemic, the alarming uncertainty and rapid lifestyle changes it produced have negatively impacted us all,” says Deborah Ann Davis, a certified personal trainer and award-winning self-help author.
“People are really struggling with social isolation,” says DiStefano. “And naturally, when people get depressed, they tend to self-isolate, which makes them further depressed. And we’re all sort of thinking about mortality and death and loss and things like that at a higher rate.”
So not only do we all have a pandemic to deal with, but we also have less access to the things that used to help us cope with stress, whether it be friends or family or fun activities outside of our homes.
“The stress is cranked up really really high, and our access to coping strategies is cranked really low,” adds Avery Hoenig, a clinical psychologist. “People who normally don’t struggle with depression are experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety as well.”
You might have already experienced this tug-of-war between your mental and physical health during the quarantine. Hanging out with friends may ward off depression, but it puts us at a higher risk of infection. So how can we practice self-care while being wary of the dangers of the coronavirus?
“What I’ve recommended for my patients is to just try to balance risk and benefit,” says Hoenig. “There’s a risk to go to the grocery store, there’s a benefit of getting groceries. So I think especially with social interaction there is a risk, but there is a risk with lack of social interaction, too. Stress reduces our immune system and makes it really hard for us to fight things off.”
Hoenig lists ways that she likes to take care of her mental health in a safe way, like socially-distanced picnics, exploring new hiking trails around Dallas, and phoning a friend while walking around her neighborhood.
“A risk of a large gathering in tight quarters is pretty high, and I don’t know if the benefit would be much higher than a one-on-one kind of socially distanced outdoor picnic,” says Hoenig. “So try to make the decisions based on possible benefit, and kind of eliminating possible risk can be a good guide.”
DiStefano recommends having a social isolation bubble.
“If [you] have a group of friends who are also being super careful, who are doing all the right things, wearing masks, people [you] can isolate together with, I think it’s important that we have social connection and we don’t let those go to the wayside either… so if you can do that in a safe way, that goes a long way with mental health too.”
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Deborah Ann Davis wrote about self-care in her book How to Get Your Happy On. She says, “If you feel lower than before, reach out to someone with more energy, and let it boost you…. If your negative self-perceptions are more pronounced, seek out a professional counselor for help. Find library books for guidance. Write in a journal. Confide in a friend. Scream into a pillow.”
There are many practical things you can do to take care of yourself during this time, but there are also ways of thinking that could help you stay strong.
“People who have higher levels of depression tend to attribute negative things to permanent factors. So saying to yourself, 'This is never going to go away, things are never going to change,’ that is absolutely not helpful and it is destructive to your mental health,” says DiStefano. “So keeping the faith and believing that this is going to get better and that we’re all going to adjust and the situation will improve is imperative to your mental health.”
Hoenig also emphasizes self-compassion during this time. “The biggest thing is just for us to be kind to ourselves,” she says. “This is hard. And it’s not hard because we’re doing it wrong, it’s hard because it’s really hard…. Trying to kind of have that compassion with ourselves and people around us can kind of go a long way.”