COVID-19. Protests. Killer hornets.
The past six months have provided many of us with a new way of experiencing the world, from the comfort of our own homes. We have been frustrated by distracting family members and the disruption of our normal lives. Many of us are worried about very real threats, like a deadly disease or racial discrimination. Others are worried about more trivial issues, such as putting on a mask or hoarding toilet paper. The research is still unclear about how the past six months have impacted overall mental health. Stress does often play a role in the development of depression and anxiety; however, I AM NOT saying that your mental health should be negatively affected because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I AM simply providing basic research on how stress can impact mental health and how you can combat psychological distress.
Stress is an emotional and physical feeling that influences the development of depression and anxiety, two of the most common psychological disorders. Depression results from a cycle of negative thought patterns and emotions that reinforce themselves. Aaron Beck posits that outside stressors in combination with negative cognitive appraisals can contribute to negative beliefs about yourself and the world. This “cognitive triad” can trigger emotions like sadness and physiological symptoms, such as loss of appetite and inactivity. As time progresses, this depressive program reinforces pessimistic beliefs, contributing to a cycle of depression for the individual. The more external stressors we experience, the more likely we are to be sucked into a negative thinking pattern about ourselves and the outside world.
The development of generalized anxiety (GAD) follows a very similar pattern to that of depression. According to cognitive theory, we estimate the danger of external threats to certain degrees. When we assess the stressor as a “low threat”, we tend to pay less attention to it and push it to the back of our minds. However, when a stressor is labeled as “high threat”, it becomes central to our thinking and perception of everyday events. This maladaptive information processing, which is central to GAD, is biased in the direction of the stressor and impacts daily functioning. Higher levels of subjective stress and danger leave us at a higher risk of anxiety.
Depression and anxiety are only a few of the mental health issues that can arise out of times of high stress. Other forms of mental illnesses, such as eating and psychotic disorders, could be results of periods of hardship and tribulation. Let’s review a few of the key points.
- Research is still unclear about the impact of the pandemic on mental health.
- External stressors contribute to the development of depression and anxiety.
- Other mental disorders can also arise out of times of hardship and high stress.
How to De-stress
When discussing strategies for combating mental distress, symptomatology of psychological disorders must first be identified. When experiencing depression, an individual is likely to feel sad and frustrated, often losing interest in everyday activities. Other signs of depression include trouble sleeping, reduced appetite, and slowed thinking or body movements. For a full list see Mayo Clinic.
Generalized anxiety is often brought upon by dysfunctional information processing of outside stimuli. Psychological symptoms include excessive worrying, overthinking, and indecisiveness. Oftentimes, physical symptoms also manifest themselves, including fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and nervousness. For a full list of symptoms, see Mayo Clinic.
The “psychological defense” strategies that I will discuss are meant as a guide to help with combating mental distress. These are meant to be convenient and practical preventative measures, rather than professional treatments that would be prescribed by a psychologist or psychiatrist. The following evidence-based strategies have been found effective in resisting stress.
- Take care of your body. EXERCISE and SLEEP!!! A recent study found that 30-60 minutes of exercise, 3-5 days per week, was linked to a lower mental health burden. Although we cannot infer that exercise improves mental health, there is definitely evidence that people who exercise demonstrate a lower risk for mental illness. In addition to exercise, carve out enough time to get a good night of sleep. Again, it is still uncertain if sleep causes mental health problems or if psychological disorders lead to sleep problems. However, studies have shown that sleep deprivation is strongly correlated with mood disorders. The CDC recommends that adults (age 18-64) get more than seven hours of sleep per night to reap optimal mental and physical benefits. If you have trouble sleeping, this guide offers some tips.
- Carve out time for relaxation. This could include relaxing your mind, your body, or both. Easy relaxation activities include breathing exercises, stretching, or meditation. Evidence-based relaxation techniques include Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Autogenic Training, and Diaphragmatic Breathing. Other everyday activities, such as reading and or taking a walk outside, can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing. No matter the activity you choose, make sure it is something you enjoy doing.
- Spend quality time with close friends and family. It seems like you hear this advice come out of every psychologist’s mouth. That’s because it works! A long-running study from Harvard has shown that there is a strong association between happiness and close relationships ( is the link to the TED Talk about this study). Although it may seem like a difficult time to cultivate friendships, now may be the best opportunity to improve relationships with our family and close friends. These past six months have been the longest I have spent with my family since I left for college. This may be the last time in my life that I live under the same roof as all three of my siblings! Rather than sulking that I was sent home for college, I made the most of this situation, playing practical jokes on my younger brother and creating some great memories. Whether it be in-person or over Zoom, talking with those who are close with us will help us de-stress and push forward through these trying times.
Seeking Professional Help
If you are experiencing severe psychological distress, please utilize one of the following hotlines or find treatment by a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist.
- Suicide Prevention Line 1-800-273-8255
- Veterans Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255
- Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- OK2Talk Helpline Teen Helpline 1 (800) 273-TALK
- Crisis Text Line Text SIGNS to 741741 for 24/7, anonymous, free crisis counseling
The advice that I have provided here is in no means professional. This post has been reviewed by a faculty member of the University of Notre Dame Department of Psychology to verify accuracy.
Aikins, D. E., & Craske, M. G. (2001). Cognitive Theories of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 24(1), 57-74. doi:10.1016/s0193-953x(05)70206-9
Beck Proposes an Integrative Theory of Depression. (2016, March 31). Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/beck-proposes-an-integrative-theory-of-depression
CDC – How Much Sleep Do I Need? – Sleep and Sleep Disorders. (2017, March 02). Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html
George E. Vaillant; Charles C. McArthur; and Arlie Bock, 2010, “Grant Study of Adult Development, 1938-2000”, https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/48WRX9, Harvard Dataverse, V4, UNF:6:FfCNPD1m9jk950Aomsriyg== [fileUNF]
Liza, V. (2015, March 13). Stress management techniques: Evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.hsj.gr/medicine/stress-management-techniques-evidencebased-procedures-that-reduce-stress-and-promote-health.php?aid=3429
Publishing, H. (n.d.). Sleep and mental health. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/sleep-and-mental-health