The United States is a nation currently plagued by many crises. We are facing a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a civil rights crisis all at the same time.
The coronavirus pandemic alone has changed almost every facet of life for hundreds of millions of Americans. For nearly two months, most Americans lived under stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus which led to an economic slowdown. Unemployment rates ballooned when the economy first started slowing down in March 2020.
Recently, many states have begun to “open up,” jumpstarting economic activity and encouraging citizens to return to a new normal way of life. Although many Americans are slowly getting back to a life outside the home, the lingering mental and emotional tolls of the coronavirus pandemic look like they are here to stay for the foreseeable future forcing us to adapt to a new normal.
In the midst of this pandemic and the economic fallout, we are watching scenes of police brutality and civil unrest being played out in the media on a daily basis.
It is not surprising that stress and anxiety are now front and center for many of us.
Given the recent confluence of these historic stressors, the mental health of many Americans is becoming a major concern as we adapt to absorb the psychological impact of all these major events. Data from a new study shows, in fact, that one-third of U.S adults have reported symptoms of clinical anxiety and depression related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Now more than ever, Americans must take a proactive approach to manage their mental and emotional health. As a society, we have long downplayed the importance of tending to our emotional health in large part due to the stigma surrounding ailments of the mind. But now as so many more of us are reaching our emotional “tipping points” given all of the change and uncertainty we are currently facing, we must ensure that we have a common everyday vernacular and approach for actively optimizing our own emotional health -- and teaching our children how to do the same for the betterment of future generations to come.
So where do we start?
Well, here’s our four-pronged approach to taking charge of your mental and emotional health during periods of stress:
1. Take time out to self-assess your own emotional health: On a weekly basis, make sure to check in with yourself and ask yourself how you are feeling. Have you had problems sleeping? Have you been gaining weight? Has your mood been persistently low or “blah”? Have you found yourself worrying a lot about everything and nothing in particular? Have you been short-tempered with others or more sensitive than usual? Have you been able to focus or concentrate on school or work? It’s important to monitor your own sense of well-being over time and if things aren’t quite right, make sure to DO something about it.
2. Create and stick to a deliberate self-care routine: Vigorous 3-5x/weekly exercise, healthy eating, proper hydration, and restful sleep are cornerstones of any healthy self-care plan. But there’s actually MORE that you can do. By practicing mindfulness and/or deep breathing exercises 5 to 10 minutes a day you can take your self-care game to the next level. Gratitude lists, new hobbies, relaxing activities, listening to music, dedicated time to organize/declutter your space -- these can all be sprinkled in to further enhance your self-care regime.
3. Design purposeful meaningful social interactions: We are social beings and need to create shared experiences with others. Work duties and family responsibilities are built-in social obligations for most. But there are certainly other ways of engaging with others that contribute to our overall sense of well-being, connectedness, and meaning. Talking through issues and feelings with close family members and friends in a relaxed social setting is one of the best ways to process how you’re feeling and get in touch with your emotions. Volunteering, tutoring, and giving back are all good ways to further fuel your emotional reserve. We have to be especially creative in this virtual world about ways that we stay connected with others. Virtual dance parties, virtual civic and social club meetings (e.g. Scouts, fraternities/sororities, Rotary Club, etc.), and virtual house of worship gatherings are other ways to stay connected and plugged in with others in meaningful ways as we continue to practice physical distancing recommendations.
4. Engage professional help sooner rather than later: For most of us, putting 1, 2, and 3 in place is enough to even things out with regards to our emotional health. But if 1, 2, and 3 are solidly in place and you’re still noticing that you’re off-kilter, have a low threshold for reaching out for professional help. Both talk therapy -- either in person or via telemedicine – and/or psychotropic medications are easy, straightforward ways of managing anxiety and depression. These are medical conditions that may require medical solutions, just like any other physical condition such as hypertension, diabetes, or asthma. Professional help can get you back on track sooner if you’re noticing that the intensity of your emotional reaction is off the charts or the duration of your emotional distress is longer than 2 to 3 weeks.
By being intentional and deliberate about our emotional health, we actively build up our capacity for resilience. With a resilience reserve fully in place, we don’t just “bounce back” from stressful situations but rather we “bounce forward” into the next life frontier, spearheading positive change and thereby offering meaningful contributions to our lives, our immediate circle, and society at large.
Dr. Carlin Barnes, MD, and Dr. Marketa Wills, MD, MBA are psychiatrists and co-founders of Healthy Mind MDs an organization whose sole mission is to optimize the mental and emotional wellness of all Americans. They recently released a groundbreaking book published by Skyhorse Publishing entitled “Understanding Mental Illness: A Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health Disorders for Family and Friends.”