By Aliza Phillips-Stoll, Ph.D.
Do you find yourself more worried these days? Jittery? Sad? Maybe the number of COVID-19 cases is on your mind or maybe this unusual back-to-school season, and you find that insomnia has kicked in?
Well, you are not alone. Depression and anxiety are on the rise in the era of pandemic. A study by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Australia’s Monash University reported the prevalence of anxiety was three times higher this summer than in the spring of 2019.
More than 40% of U.S. adult respondents indicated they were struggling with mental health symptoms including anxiety, depression, substance use. Eleven percent were considering suicide. Young adults ages 18-24 seem to be especially adversely impacted, with a whopping 75% of those surveyed reporting an elevation in mental health symptoms.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that psychology has a long tradition of helping people to steady themselves even when it feels that the world is spinning out of control. Here are a few tried and true suggestions you can try to help you find your balance.
Exercise: You have heard it before, but let’s say it again: Exercise is medicine. Science shows us over and over that exercise helps beat back the depressive blues. And as with improving metabolic health, moderate exercise — e.g. a 45 minute walk, five days a week — can do the trick.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a major buzzword these days, but a growing body of research really does show that mindfulness helps to ease anxiety and depression. Sure, not all of us are natural Zen masters, but science shows we can learn to improve our emotional balance. Through a regular mindfulness practice, people can learn to tune their awareness to the present moment, and to tune out anxious and depressing thoughts. Here’ s how it works: Imagine you are stuck in a traffic jam. If you think to yourself, I hate this traffic, I am late, this is so horrible — you will likely end up stressed out. However, if you are able to focus on the sensations of the present moment — I feel myself breathing, I hear the music on the radio, I feel the wind in my hair — well then, maybe the traffic jam (or a seemingly endless pandemic) becomes a bit more tolerable.
Forgive yourself. Didn’t get out of bed in time to exercise before the kids woke up? Skipped out on that meditation app you swore to practice before bedtime? Don’t beat yourself up about it. Rather than motivating yourself to do better, research shows self-criticism can lead to further depression, leaving you feeling worse than when you started. So give yourself a break and try again tomorrow.
Psychotherapy. Last but not least: Get help from a professional. Really, psychotherapy is a great thing to do. Psychological counselling can help heal the wounds of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse and more. Through psychotherapy people learn new ways of looking at themselves and their relationships and of breaking through roadblocks that stand in the way of achieving their goals. Just having someone confidential to talk to can make life seem a little bit better. If the first step seems hard to take, your physician can help you locate a trusted therapist and you will be on your way. As an added bonus much of behavioral health treatment has moved to telehealth these days, so no need to worry about masking up and heading out in order to talk.
The take home message: Living through this pandemic is hard and you may very well be feeling a bit more anxious or depressed these days. That is understandable. It is also important to understand that it is within your power to take steps quickly to feel better emotionally, even while COVID-19 seems to be taking its time to go away.
Aliza Phillips-Stoll, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist practicing in the Greater Boston area. She is an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and a supervising psychologist at the Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts Mental Health Psychology Internship Program. You can find her at https://www.psychologytoday.com/profile/294133,