Taking care of your mental health in the time of COVID-19

Watch the replay of University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics clinical psychologist Stacey Pawlak, PhD, answering questions about mental health during the time of COVID-19.

You can also read an edited transcript of the video to get the highlights. Answers were condensed from Pawlak’s unscripted responses to the questions asked in the Facebook Live broadcast.

What can we do better to cope with what feels like a constant stream of negativity and change?

Change is happening so frequently and there are so many unknowns. Because of that, it’s okay to feel stressed out and worried about things. It’s normal to have those feelings of anxiety and stress, sadness, and grief. Acknowledge those feelings.

But in acknowledging those things, it’s also important to remember the positives and things that are still okay. Doing so will help you to not be overwhelmed by stressors.

Here are some ways to manage stressors:

  • Take things one day at a time
  • Live in the present
  • Break problems down to the very basics

How can we justify positivity during a time of such hardship?

This has been a hard year for everyone, and searching for and focusing on the positives can sometimes make you feel guilty. But getting over that hump is vital for our mental health, because positivity is not something anyone should feel guilty about.

Someone said something to me recently that I thought was really profound. He said we need to hunt the good. We need to find the good things in the midst of all these challenges, because that’s where the hope lies.

— Stacey Pawlak, PhD, Clinical Psychologist

What makes us resilient? How do we maintain that resiliency?

People are sometimes unaware of how resilient they can be. Someone who has gone through a trauma or a struggle or a challenge will be asked how they did it and they’ll say, “I don’t know, I just did it, I just got through it.” Basically, they are pulling from skillsets and strategies that they’ve used in the past to manage their challenges without even realizing it.

When it comes to dealing with challenges, no one is ever starting from scratch. Everyone has experienced some sort of struggle or challenge before in their life.

Ask yourself these questions when trying to brainstorm ways you have overcome past challenges:

  • What have I done in the past to manage stressors?
  • Who have I reached out to for help?
  • How have I dug down and figured out strategies that have worked?

Resilience is not a single-person job. It’s all about reaching out to others. It is pulling from both our internal and external resources.

Can setting boundaries be an important tool in managing our mental health?

Most people can tell when they’re starting to feel overwhelmed by information. It’s a normal human drive to seek information to make sense of our circumstances, to understand why things are happening the way they’re happening. But what’s going on this year is we don’t have a lot of answers. We don’t have an end point.

There’s so much information floating around that is changing every day. The boundary setting becomes important because it’s very easy to get overwhelmed with too many pieces of information and it’s hard to find facts.

There are a lot of opinions, especially on social media, but also in regular news sources. It can be hard to determine what the facts are and what the opinion is. Sometimes the facts change daily.

Setting limits and boundaries on all the information we take in is important to avoid getting overwhelmed and latching on to misinformation. Taking in all of this information can create a false sense of control that disappears after taking a step back.

Here are a few ways you can set boundaries:

  • Limit time on social media platforms
  • Limit time watching or reading the news
  • When interacting with others, dedicate time spent discussing things outside of COVID-19 and the toll it is taking on our lives
    • Talking about hobbies or doing fun activities (while social distancing) are great ways to practice this

Is therapy a helpful tool as we continue to live through the pandemic?

Therapy can be a useful tool at any point, especially during times that are so challenging.

Questions to ask yourself if you’re considering therapy:

  • Is there something that’s causing me stress right now?
  • Am I willing to consider ways that I might be able to change the stressor, or how I react to or think about it?
  • Am I willing to address this stressor with another person: a therapist who can offer objective ideas and support?
  • Am I open to collaborating with my therapist and committing to the treatment plan we develop together?

It’s also important to remember that telehealth is an option. Telehealth is a powerful tool that allows virtual appointments from home that are just as effective as in-person meetings.

How do I check on friends and family while social distancing and quarantining?

Texting and calling people regularly are great ways to prevent social withdrawal.

Consider watching for these red flags in friends and family:

  • Not hearing from someone whom you frequently spend time or regularly interact with
  • The tone of communication has changed and may include a sense of:
    • Hopelessness
    • Feeling overwhelmed
    • Anger
    • Anxiety
    • Grief
  • Not eating right
  • Not sleeping normally, either too much or too little

You can also set up regular meetings to check in with each other. Someone missing a scheduled call can raise a bigger red flag than if they miss an unexpected phone call, for example.

How common is depression?

There have been studies on the changes in both depression and anxiety during the pandemic and the numbers are pretty frightening right now. Around a quarter to a third of adults right now in our nation are experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms. That’s double, sometimes even triple, what we normally see.

CDC data published in August 2020 indicates that around 41% of U.S. adult respondents reported experiencing at least one mental health condition, including anxiety or depression (30.9% total; depression is four times higher now than in 2019 while anxiety is three times higher).

The percentage of respondents who reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey was 10.7% (about twice as high as in 2019). 26.3% of respondents reported experiencing symptoms of a trauma- and stressor-related disorder and 13.3% reported having started or increased substance use to cope with stress.

Mental health care providers are considering not only the short-term impacts of mental health consequences but the long-term impacts, as well.

What should someone experiencing symptoms of depression do?

If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of depression, the most important thing you can do is reach out.

Ways to reach out while social distancing or quarantining:

  • Call or text someone you know
  • Support groups
  • Chat options

It doesn’t have to be an emergency to reach out to someone. These lines are available all hours of the day, and can be used even if you just need someone to talk to.