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Managing your mental health during a global pandemic

As we hit the one-year mark since the first case of COVID-19 in New Orleans, your day-to-day life may continue to look much different now than before the pandemic. We’ve all been introduced to some new—and at times—uncomfortable ways of living, like social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and quarantining. These pandemic-related changes may have you and your loved ones worried, overwhelmed, or even scared.

Why is mental health important?

The COVID-19 vaccine may ease some worries, but studies show that many of us are still struggling with the uncertainty of the pandemic. People are feeling anxious, frustrated, depressed, and lonely. Some groups, such as children and people who are more likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19, may be especially at risk for mental health problems.

Mental health is important because it can affect every aspect of your life. This includes your job, your marriage, your relationship with your family, and your general well-being. When you’re experiencing mental health issues, it may seem impossible to complete even basic work assignments or care for children.

Mental health can also impact your physical health. For example, chronic anxiety and stress can have a negative effect on your heart, particularly if you already have an illness like high blood pressure.

How do you know you may be dealing with mental illness?

It's impossible and unrealistic to expect to be cheerful all the time. Some days are harder than others. But if you just can't shake your sadness or you have mysterious aches and pains, you may be suffering from clinical depression.

Like heart disease and diabetes, clinical depression is an illness that can be treated. Depression may be the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, heredity, a stressful life change, or medicine. It could be a combination of these. It may develop after a particular event or for no apparent reason. It can also be secondary to another underlying medical problem (for example, hypothyroidism) or a consequence of using drugs or alcohol.

Many people don't realize that they have depression. To help determine whether you may be depressed, answer the following questions:

  • Do you feel sad or hopeless but don't know why?
  • Do you have lasting aches and pains that don't respond to treatment?
  • Have you lost interest in activities you used to enjoy?
  • Do you have trouble concentrating, remembering, or making decisions?
  • Do you frequently feel worthless or guilty?
  • Do you have trouble sleeping at night?
  • Do you worry that you sleep too much?

If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, and you have felt this way for more than 2 weeks, talk to your healthcare provider because you may be depressed. Treatment can help you feel good again—but first, someone has to know you feel bad.

How can you take care of your mental health during COVID?

Many things may be out of your control during the pandemic. This fact may trigger strong emotions like anger, anxiety, or sadness. Even if you feel a lack of control, you aren’t powerless. In fact, you can do a lot every day to help yourself feel better. Self-care, in particular, can help you feel more in control. Done over time, it can help you build new routines that support your mental health.

What does self-care look like?

That’s entirely up to you. You don’t have to revamp your whole life to take advantage of its benefits. You can start by doing one thing a day, such as going to bed 30 minutes earlier or taking a 10-minute walk outside for some fresh air. Try some of these proven self-care strategies:

  • Take a deep breath. The simple act of deep breathing can calm your body and mind. Other ways to reduce stress include meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or yoga.
  • Limit the newsreel. Watching constant coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic can put you on edge. Spend only a small amount of time once or twice a day reading or watching the news. That includes on social media, where misinformation can quickly spread.
  • Do one thing that you enjoy every day. Maybe play with a pet, listen to some music, or read a book.
  • Learn something new. Focusing on a new hobby or skill—such as cooking, playing a musical instrument, or taking an interesting online course—can give you a much-needed break from daily demands.
  • Stay in touch with family and friends. Virtual visits may be best right now. Even a quick phone call or text message can shake off loneliness and help you feel more connected.
  • Lay off the alcohol. You may think drinking alcohol is a good way to relax. But too much alcohol can make you more prone to panic attacks, depression, and other mental health problems. Plus, it can cloud your judgment and impair decision-making.
  • Build a healthier routine. Many good self-care habits do double duty as stress relievers. They include making time for adequate sleep, fitting in some exercise every day, and eating more healthy foods. Remember: Making simple, small changes over time can add up to a healthier you.

How can you get help when you need it?

Hoping mental health problems such as anxiety or depression will go away on their own can lead to worsening symptoms. If you have concerns or if you experience worsening of mental health symptoms, ask for help when you need it, and be upfront about how you're doing. To get help you may want to:

  • Call or use social media to contact a close friend or loved one — even though it may be hard to talk about your feelings.
  • Contact a minister, spiritual leader, or someone in your faith community.
  • Contact your employee assistance program, if your employer has one, and get counseling or ask for a referral to a mental health professional.
  • Call your primary care provider or mental health professional to ask about appointment options to talk about your anxiety or depression and get advice and guidance. Some may provide the option of a phone, video, or online appointments.

If you or someone you know needs a primary care provider, you can visit touro.com/findadoc or call 504.897.7777

About Dr. Maxwell

Dr. Meredith Maxwell specializes in Family Medicine at Crescent City Physicians, Inc., a subsidiary of Touro Infirmary. After earning her degree from St. Matthews University Medical School, she completed her residency in Family Medicine at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine. Dr. Maxwell said she chose Family Medicine because it never gets boring and allows her to treat patients of all ages and treat the whole family.