The Pandemic Is Accelerating Our Mental Health Crisis

But we can come out of it stronger than before.

Marco Di Lauro / Stringer / Getty Images News
Marco Di Lauro / Stringer / Getty Images News

Even before anybody without a degree in epidemiology had ever heard of COVID-19, we were already in the middle of a mental health crisis. Worldwide, over 264 million people were struggling with depression, and in the U.S. alone, nearly 50 million adults had experienced some form of mental illness in the past year. And now, long periods of isolation, the loss of loved ones, the loss of jobs, financial insecurity and the daily stress of our new normal are accelerating that mental health crisis. Just as we’ve had to make drastic changes to our lives to stop the spread of the virus, we need to take urgent steps to safeguard our mental health, too.

A recent report published in The Lancet warned that the mental health effects of the pandemic could “exceed the consequences of the 2019-nCoV epidemic itself.” We can’t yet see the true dimensions of how the pandemic will amplify this mental health crisis, but the evidence is there that it’s already happening: calls to mental health helplines are surging, and a survey of U.S. workers by Qualtrics found that 52% of those now working remotely feel more anxious working from home. The nonprofit Crisis Text Line, which offers free text message support to those in need, has seen a 40% rise in traffic, with the vast majority of conversations focusing on virus-related anxiety, according to The Wall Street Journal. As CEO Nancy Lublin puts it, “the mental health issues are an echo of the physical health issues and the echo could even be worse.”

And to manage this new normal, many of us are reaching for short-term fixes that will only further damage our mental — and physical — health. As Sara Fischer writes in Axios, Americans are “doubling down on their worst habits to cope with the mental and emotional stress of the coronavirus pandemic.” Alcohol sales have jumped — with spirits up 75%, wine up 66% and beer up 42%. Cannabis use reached an all-time high in March — even as medical experts warn that marijuana and vaping, as well as tobacco, may increase the risk of COVID-19 infection and exacerbate the risks of spreading it. Not surprisingly, people are exercising less. They’re also eating more and reaching for comfort foods — Oreos, Goldfish crackers, Slim Jims — with “COVID-15” becoming a meme for the standard quarantine weight gain. Scientists from Columbia University have warned that school closures could exacerbate already epidemic rates of childhood obesity, which in turn can have lifelong effects. 

And then there are the long-term effects for all of us. As Yuval Neria, professor of psychology at Columbia University, explained to CNBC, traumatic events can leave a broad and lasting mark, and not just on those most affected by the events themselves: “After 9/11, we had the first indication that even people who were not directly exposed to trauma, but spent many hours in front of the television or looking at their smartphones were at high risk for psychopathology, including PTSD, depression and anxiety.” And how many millions have spent many, many hours in the last month watching the news or staring at their phone?

The good news is that even before the pandemic began, the conversation around mental health was already happening. At Thrive, we’ve seen a dramatic difference even since we launched in 2016. Companies are more and more focused on providing mental health support for their employees. As this Axios piece makes clear, CEOs and entrepreneurs are worried about how the pandemic might be deepening mental health issues, like addiction and depression. Both business leaders and workers are hungry for solutions. 

That’s why we launched our Thriving Mind experience. It’s an entirely new playbook for mental health, and we’ve already rolled it out to hundreds of thousands of people at Accenture and Salesforce. Developed in partnership with Stanford Medicine and based on their cutting-edge brain research, Thriving Mind shares science-backed Microsteps to help us manage coronavirus anxiety, build human connection in a time of isolation, eat well and move, even when we’re unable to leave our home.

It starts by understanding why we respond to stress and anxiety the way we do. Using high-definition MRIs, Stanford Medicine’s Dr. Leanne Williams has identified eight different types of brain “short circuits,” which she calls biotypes, that can occur when we’re under extreme stress and our brain circuits get “stuck” in a loop of thoughts, feelings or behaviors we can’t get out of. To see which one you might identify with, you can watch this video, which shows them all, with a little help from some pop culture icons. I closely identify with the Rumination biotype, which happens when we’re unable to stop brooding over a negative experience or interaction.

Everyone has their own response to stress and anxiety, and when we understand patterns in ourselves, we can respond intentionally by using Microsteps to manage our anxiety much more effectively and develop sustainable tools both to navigate this new normal and to emerge stronger on the other side. Here are three of my favorite Microsteps:

1. If you find yourself judging your emotions or responses around the pandemic, remind yourself that they are normal and justified. Studies have found that pathologizing your responses by viewing them as “something wrong with you for reacting so strongly” actually increases your anxiety. Instead, say something to yourself like, “You are going through a crisis, and you are reacting in a normal way to an abnormal situation.” 

2. When you feel overwhelmed, focus on your breathing instead of reaching for your phone. We often use our phones to distract us from challenging moments, but this often leaves us more stressed and more disconnected from what matters most. Allow yourself a moment to turn inward instead and focus on your breathing.

3. Set a news and social media cut-off time. While being informed can help us feel more prepared in a public health crisis, setting healthy limits to our media consumption can help us have a restorative rest and put the stressful news into perspective. 

We hear a lot about stockpiles of essential medical equipment and PPEs. But we also need to build our internal stockpiles so that we can build our mental resilience. How are we replenishing our own inner resources? How can we turn away from unhealthy coping behaviors and equip ourselves to come out of the pandemic wiser and more resilient than before? 

As the novelist Arundhati Roy writes in the Financial Times, the crisis presents an opportunity to reset and create another, better world. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” 

Subscribe here for my Weekly Thoughts Newsletter, where you’ll find my take on the week’s news, my favorite pieces on how we can thrive even in our stressful world, and some fun and inspiring extras.

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