Mental health during a pandemic
Referrals to mental health services are soaring internationally, and many of us are understandably stressed, anxious and grieving about Covid-19 and its consequences.
As we continue to battle this pandemic with ongoing large-scale illness, death, grief and disruption, it is easy to see how this could be impacting us emotionally and more chronically.
Of course, we know that there’s fear. Very real and justified fear. Not just about illness — although that would be enough — but about all the other consequences. Many of us are suffering with grief; either losing loved ones or being unable to be close to family and friends. Add on job losses, financial struggles, economic instability, uncertainty, social restrictions and lockdowns; understandably, we are feeling threatened.
In these circumstances, our brains go into threat mode. Typically, this results in a heightened state of vigilance and physiological arousal, designed to help us out in an acute state of threat. However, when we spend a long time in threat mode, our brains start to over-fire, finding risk in more and more things, creating ever increasing anxiety and reducing our resilience. Worse still, we know that being wired for threat over long periods of time is stressful on our bodies, leading to poorer health outcomes.
Add to this the relatively subtle but significant impact of the pandemic in terms of what I am calling “coping strategy erosion”. Essentially, that as life ploughs on and we are expected to negotiate the usual marital issues, break-ups, losses, setbacks and transitions of life, we also have to factor in restricted access to our usual coping strategies; the things that distract us, bring joy to our lives and keep us buoyant through hard times.
Maybe you can’t deal with your grief by booking a trip and getting off island, you can’t take that course that would help you get a better job, you can’t spend time with people who are your main source of support, and you can’t busy yourself with dates or nights out with friends. Maybe you can no longer ground yourself in things that add joy to your life such as sport and hobbies, and you can’t work off that anger or frustration in the gym. You are left to feel all those feelings in the bare bones of your life, at a time when life is most challenging.
Part of understanding all of this is knowing that if you are struggling right now, it’s understandable and you are not alone. We know that the world may not be the same for a while, and as we collectively hold our breath, how do we live? Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be sharing some reflections and tips on how to manage your wellbeing during these difficult times. We are in this together.
• Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor