Sunday Scaries

Four mental health strategies learned during Covid-19

This long pandemic has ignited cascading effects.

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You don’t need a study to know this, but it can be helpful to see the data anyway: The Covid-19 pandemic has been, for many, a terrible burden on mental health.

This is true worldwide. Research produced by the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health in March suggests “an elevated global prevalence” of depression and anxiety since the pandemic began.

The timing of this study means that the major factors influencing the mental health hurdles were mitigation strategies like stay-at-home orders, school closures, and generally, social distancing. But this long pandemic has ignited cascading effects we couldn’t have predicted when the outbreak began. These are both the mental health costs associated with the profound, like the loss of life, and the mundane, like staying home for so long.

If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that we need to give ourselves and others a bit of grace. Here are four examples of mental health hurdles encountered during Covid-19, and possible solutions you may want to try.

1. Zoom fatigue

Video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams became omnipresent for many during the pandemic, as businesses turned to virtual meetings as a way to still get work done.

However, another element soon emerged: psychological fatigue. Video requires a heavy cognitive load, it stops us from moving around, and there’s an excessive amount of eye-contact. It’s also exhausting to see yourself for so long.

Try this: Thankfully, experts have taken a look at the problem and found some potential solutions.

Back in February, Jeremy Bailenson, a Stanford University professor, advised me to use the “hide self-view” feature. This allows team members to see you, but you can’t see yourself. Research suggests seeing a reflection of yourself can cause you to be more critical — this is a way to prevent that.

You can also just turn the camera off. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found turning off the camera during video conferencing decreased fatigue and boosted engagement, especially for female employees and those new to the team.

2. The pandemic puts stress on relationships

Studies and polls point to a similar trend: Covid-19 has not been easy on couples. While there’s obviously variability in the experience, a worldwide pandemic and its aftermath isn’t exactly going to be helpful in spurring romantic love. In July, polls suggested that one in five American couples were fighting more than they were before the pandemic.

Try this: Blame the pandemic.

While this may sound silly, research suggests that it works. A June 2021 paper found that when couples were blaming the pandemic, they were blaming their romantic partner less for issues that emerged as stress spill-overs.

“Individuals who were more blaming of the pandemic were more resilient to the harmful effects of stress,” said co-author Lisa Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

3. Social isolation drives loneliness

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated feelings of isolation already present — something referred to as the “loneliness epidemic.” Being lonely during Covid-19 is associated with being up to ten times more likely to experience worse mental health, and young people have been one of the groups most severely affected.

Try this: Be patient with yourself, and think about your existing relationships.

This is a complicated situation, but researchers emphasize that eliminating the stigma of being alone is a strong step forward in combating loneliness. They also recommend working on strengthening the social ties you have, rather than feel like you need to make new connections. Phone calls have more value than you might give them credit for.

Research also suggests mindfulness training can help reduce loneliness because it helps the brain develop “an orientation of acceptance toward present-moment experiences.”

4. Increased screen time can increase anxiety

In this case, we’re mainly referring to “passive screen time” — this means endless, needless scrolling. Overall, screen time is on the rise, and who can blame us? We’re at home, looking for something to do.

However, research does suggest an association between increased screen time and increased anxiety.

Try this: Engage in healthy digital habits.

Screen time can also mean talking to friends online, playing an engaging video game, and knowing when you’ve had enough. These actions and boundaries are important for strengthening your emotional well-being.

What’s essential is that you “zone in” instead of “zoning out.” This idea revolves around the concept of “flow activities” — activities that both engage the brain and help you pass the time. Maybe this means playing Animal Crossing, but it could also mean puzzling, baking, and gardening.

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