How the Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic Is Taking a Toll on Mental Health

8 ways to cope with the stress of a long-haul pandemic
older woman sad looking out window

We’re closing in on our first full year of COVID-19, but nobody’s in the mood to celebrate. As the months drag on (and on… and on…), the pandemic is taking an ever-larger toll on our collective mental health.

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“People are frustrated,” says Licensed Mental Health counselor Anne Posey, LMHC. “We’re really feeling the impacts of the pandemic, and we’re tired of it.”

It’s been a long haul, and it’s not over yet. But it won’t last forever, Posey notes — and there are tools to help you get through to the other side.

“Sometimes, we expect to just magically feel better, but it doesn’t usually work that way,” she adds. “If you map out a plan and do things with intention, you’ll get through this.”

How to cope with stress in the COVID-19 era

In the early days of the pandemic, many people felt fear and uncertainty, Posey says. But several months in, a serious case of “COVID fatigue” has set in: We’re exhausted by continued restrictions, drained by endless Zoom meetings and sick of having to worry about whether there will be toilet paper at the store.

As winter blows in, the colder, darker days definitely aren’t helping. But every day doesn’t have to feel like a slog. These eight strategies can help you cope.

1. Change your frame

The way you frame things can make a big difference in your mood and mental health. If you focus on the negative, that’s how you’ll feel — so try to look at challenges in a new way. “Instead of telling yourself ‘I’m so tired of not seeing my friends, I can’t keep doing this,’ reframe it to say, ‘I’m doing something for the greater good, and this won’t last forever,” Posey says.

2. Worry better

Worrying for worrying’s sake doesn’t do you any good — unless it spurs you to make changes, Posey says. “If you find you’re anxious about something in particular, try to problem solve.”

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Instead of dwelling on whether you might lose your job because of the pandemic, take action by updating your resume, looking at job listings or talking to your boss about your concerns. If the worst happens and you find yourself unemployed, you’ll be in a better position to respond. “You can handle challenges if you have a plan,” Posey adds.

3. Look behind you

You’ve probably gone through hard times in the past. “Look back at the times you struggled. How did you get through it? Who was supportive? What good advice did you get?” Posey says. “Remember that you’re resilient. Draw on those skills to get through the day.”

4. Look after yourself

You’ve heard it before: Eat healthy, exercise, get plenty of sleep, don’t drink too much. But it really does make a difference in how you feel. If you’re still using the pandemic as an excuse to indulge (Why not eat this whole carton of ice cream? It’s a pandemic!), it might be time to try a new strategy.

5. Keep a routine

Just because you can wear pajamas all day and take lunchtime naps doesn’t mean you should. “Routines are good for you,” Posey says. “You might need to map out a healthy eating plan, set a regular bedtime and schedule a 30-minute walk each day.”

6. Reach out

After months of living and working remotely, virtual happy hours have lost some of their sparkle. But it’s as important as ever to stay connected to friends and family — even if you have to get creative to do it.

Send a care package to a friend you’re missing. Bundle up and meet a pal outside for a socially distant walk. Or just pick up the phone. It might feel like it takes too much effort. But once you connect, you’ll be glad you did.

7. Stay in the present

It’s easy for your stress to spiral if you start thinking, “What if?” To avoid getting lost in a rabbit hole of worry, try to stay in the moment. “We don’t know what the future holds. Try to focus on what you’ll do this week instead of worrying about what will be happening a year from now,” says Posey.

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8. Look for silver linings

You don’t have to be an eternal optimist who sees the bright side of everything. Even pessimists and realists can benefit from looking for the little gifts inside this pandemic. Maybe you don’t have to set your alarm quite so early or deal with a commute. Maybe you’re getting to spend more time with your teens now that you’re all staying home.

It might be as simple as a new appreciation for the loved ones you’re eager to see again when this is all over. Figure out what your gifts are and pay attention to them.

Should I consider therapy? 

Another silver lining of the pandemic? “Mental health care is more accessible than ever,” Posey says. Thanks to new telehealth options, you can talk to a mental health specialist without leaving your home.

If you’re feeling anxious or depressed every day, and it’s been going on for at least a couple of weeks, Posey recommends getting some help. “If you had a headache that lasted a week or two, you’d talk to a doctor. Why wouldn’t you do the same if you’re feeling down?” she asks.

After months of social distancing and doomscrolling, even the peppiest among us feels the wear and tear. “It’s a difficult time,” Posey says. “But we can set the intention to do things that will help us get through this.”

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