How to Be Sensitive to Your Mental Health During COVID-19

Health & Wellness

May 20, 2020

Uncertain times, fear, worry. Those phrases get tossed around, used in commercials, talked about in news or social media.

But for some – maybe for many, maybe for you – these are real. Maybe experienced for the first time or in new ways. A job loss. An unexpected death or illness. The isolation and loneliness. New worries about finances, health or the future.

With 90,000 Americans having lost their lives and 20.5 million Americans losing their jobs in April alone, the pandemic has left an indelible toll on the country. But experts have also warned of a “second pandemic” – an increase in mental and behavioral illness that follows the first pandemic in its wake.

In a joint United Nations and World Health Organization report released in May, 45 percent of Americans had reported experiencing distress due to the COVID-19 crisis.

This global pandemic is also a personal one and can affect each of us individually in different ways. IU Health Behavioral Health licensed therapists Lindsay Potts and Trisha Palencer shared how you can be sensitive to your own mental health during the COVID-19 crisis.

Understand Normal Responses

We should expect certain responses to the pandemic, said Potts, manager of outpatient behavioral health services in Bloomington.

Anxiety, for example is a normal response. Our mind is constantly calibrating, processing new information, feeling overwhelmed. This is the state all of us are in. Potts described these emotions as waves, that might have peaks or flare-ups but you’re able to process through them with your friends or loved ones.

That, Potts said, is normal. And that’s an important part to understand in our response to this pandemic.

“If you have those flare-ups of ‘Oh my gosh, I’m out of control’ or emoting feelings of disappointment or feelings of fear that you’re able to process through with closed loves ones or virtually with friends, then I’d say that’s a healthy, normal response to what’s happening right now,” Potts said.

For many, that recalibrating and processing is just part of a healthy, ongoing response that lead to a new normal and calm, Potts said.

How to Tell if Something’s Up

If you don’t ever valley back down from those peaks or flare-ups and living in a constant state of anxiety or depression, that could indicate you need additional support, said Potts.

How can you tell? Palencer offered a few warning signs. One clear signal is if you’re not able to do daily tasks of self-care or see significant changes in your behavior related to your usual routine.

Of course, much of our “usual” routine hasn’t been usual these days, whether that means kids at home or working from home – or no job at all or other major life changes.

But check the things you can control – ask yourself: Am I getting enough sleep? Am I eating well? Am I still doing some kind of exercise?

“We’ve kind of got this blanketed everything’s different right now mentality and major shifts in routine we just haven’t noticed as much and so we haven’t been on top of those basic self-care needs,” Palencer said.

Another warning sign is being overly tired, burnt out or simply having an overriding sense of cynicism (“everything is awful and is going to continue to be awful”), Palencer said.

Experiencing New Anxieties or Stress?

Maybe the COVID-19 crisis has you or a loved one experiencing new symptoms of mental health – new anxieties or depression. A job loss out of nowhere. A death or illness of a loved one, even if not related to the virus itself, but with very different ways to care, grieve or mourn. New worries or fears that didn’t exist two months ago.

Addressing these issues as part of a grief process is a healthy way to process, Palencer and Potts said.

“The whole COVID situation is a collective trauma that we’re all in right now,” Potts said. “The healthy response to a trauma is a lot of processing.”

We’re prone to take on a different mentality – and maybe early on in the crisis it’s one many adopted. The “buck up and get over it” mentality, as Palencer described it. For Potts, she said her realization slowly transitioned from a “do-do-do” mentality – a hunker-down-and-get-through-it approach that didn’t set herself up for success in the long run.

That “get over it” mentality or suppression of emotions doesn’t give the freedom or permission to grieve.

“Grieving we treat differently,” Palencer said. “Grief we give ourselves permission to be sad, we give ourselves permission to understand why something was important to ourselves and in grief, we look for connections to support ourselves through it.”

“If we can have this shift, from ‘Do something productive with [quarantine] and be grateful and at least you’re OK’ and move to a grief and loss mentality and say, ‘It’s OK to feel this loss, it’s OK to support each other through this time,’ I think we have a different social response which is what we’re all craving.”

How to Care for Yourself

Whether you’ve identified your own stresses or anxieties or just want to set yourself up for success, Palencer said the best self-care steps start with the basics: your hygiene, your health, your sleeping and your nutrition.

“If you look at the hierarchy of needs you’ll say I can’t do any of this higher-level emotional processing if I’m eating Cheetos and watching TV and sleeping three hours per night,” Palencer said. “I just don’t have the ability to do it.”

If you are meeting your basic needs, look for ways to make connections with others (even while being physically distant) and bring a sense of calm with simple coping skills to bring those peaks down.

You can keep it simple:

  • Get outside on nice days
  • Go for a walk
  • Listen to music
  • Do a puzzle
  • Read a book
  • Try a new hobby like cooking, but don’t stress if it doesn't go well

For making connections with others, Palencer and Potts offered several suggestions:

  • Seek out virtual support groups
  • Have open, honest conversations with loved ones in your household
  • Find therapy support (most have virtual options)

How to Get the Mental Health Help You Need

There may be some where those peaks or waves of emotions don’t come back down. There may be other reasons you should see a mental health professional.

Potts and Palencer offered several cautions they would have where they would encourage someone to seek additional help:

  • Inability to sleep, take care of family or do daily tasks at work
  • Marked differences in personality or behavior that are new in this environment
  • Emotional outbursts or violent behavior
  • Any suicidal ideation
  • Increase in alcohol or drug use
  • Any longer-term behavior of any behaviors that is distressing (overly fatigued, overly tearful persistent dissatisfaction, etc.)

There are many resources for help. The best place to start is with your primary care provider who can provide a referral to a mental health professional. Depending on the type of support you need, you may be guided to virtual support platforms or to the right kind of care for your need.

When scheduling with a mental health professional, it is important to check your insurance coverage. Sometimes, certain providers are in network while others are not.

The tools and resources are available for the help that you need.

“There may be some folks that this calm is very challenging to find, that things in their lives have changed so drastically that there’s new stresses,” Potts said. “Seek out that support to help navigate a new chapter in one’s life. Those supports should be readily available in one’s community.”

And you’re not alone in this journey.

“The idea that I’m struggling right now doesn’t make me sicker than most or makes me unable to cope,” Palencer said. “It’s just how my body and brain is telling me how I need support right now and that’s a really normal thing that everyone is going through together.”

More Mental Health Resources

  • Be Well Indiana: Find resources designed to help Hoosiers stay connected and maintain their well-being during COVID-19 crisis
  • Psychology Today provides a national directory of mental health professionals

From IU Health

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