Is the pandemic stressing you out? You’re not alone

Get expert advice on how manage your mental health
September 24, 2020
A stormy scene in the mountains with a ray of light signifying the impact of COVID-19 but the light shows there are way for dealing with pandemic stress.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased depression and anxiety for many. But, there is also greater awareness about mental health challenges, people are supporting one another and there are good methods for dealing with pandemic stress. Photo: Getty Images.

Are you dealing with pandemic stress? Are you anxious? Depressed? Now that we’re many months into the novel coronavirus pandemic, and it’s unclear how much longer it will last, these feelings are understandable and becoming more widespread.

Studies show that Americans are reporting an increase in mental health issues, as well as substance abuse issues. A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll said that 53% of Americans reported that their mental health had been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus – up from 32% in March. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also reported “considerable elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19.”

The studies confirm what many people are experiencing in their everyday lives.

Dr. Steven Berkowitz helps people in dealing with pandemic stress.
Dr. Steven Berkowitz

“No one I know is doing well. Nobody feels they are at their best. That’s to be expected,” says Dr. Steven Berkowitz, professor of psychiatry with the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Director of the CU START Center.

More people are dealing with pandemic stress and seeking help

Berkowitz says he has seen an uptick in the number of patients seeking help in the UCHealth Department of Psychiatry. Patients include those who have been in treatment before, resolved their issues, and are now returning and new patients seeking help for anxiety and help managing their day-to-day lives. He says people are not necessarily looking for psychotherapy or medications, per se, but many are just looking for help. “A lot of people are seeking support on how to deal with school and kids and being overwhelmed.”

Joanna Stratton helps people handle anxiety caused by the pandemic.
Joanna Stratton, Ph.D.

Joanna Stratton, Ph.D., a psychologist at the UCHealth A.F. Williams Family Medicine Clinic, says that she, too, is seeing an increase in people seeking mental health support as well as the severity of symptoms. She says that she’s hearing about isolation issues more than anything else and problems accessing regular coping mechanisms that can help combat isolation, feelings of depression and anxiety symptoms.

“I’m hearing from people that they want to feel more positive and less anxious but that the things that usually work, don’t work from them right now. Their go-to’s for coping aren’t available,” says Stratton.

Why women are feeling it more

Not surprisingly, the KFF poll reported that women with children under 18 are reporting more stress related to the pandemic than their male counterparts. Additionally, more women, in general, are reporting negative mental health impacts due to worry and stress from the coronavirus than men, 57% to 50%.

“For women with young children, the supports that they would rely on pre-COVID such as school, youth sports, and social organizations are inaccessible. Also, I think women, on the whole, are relational and prefer to connect in real-time ways. The diminished social connection can make some women feel lonely and overwhelmed,” says Stratton.

Sona Dimidjian helps people in deal with stress from COVID-19.
Sona Dimidjian, Ph.D.

Berkowitz says research completed after a disaster shows that middle-aged women tend to fare worse than other demographic groups. “The reason for that is that they care for everyone. Not only are they taking care of their children and potentially their partners, but often they’re worried about their parents and older generations. So, they’re in the middle in every way, shape, or form,” he says.

Furthermore, Sona Dimidjian, Ph.D., director of the Renee Crown Wellness Institute in Boulder and professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder, points out that mothers tend to place high expectations on themselves.

“I think for most mothers there’s this culture of self-judgment and criticism and blame and that can easily get incorporated into this pandemic world. They have this expectation that they should be able to manage this situation like they manage everything else – smoothly, where everyone’s needs are met,” Dimidjian says.

She says it’s essential for women, and all of us, to acknowledge that this is a challenging situation, and everyone is having a hard time. We’re all doing this best we can, she says, and we should give ourselves credit for that.

Effective ways to cope and feel better

Dr. C. Neill Epperson helps people in dealing with pandemic stress.
Dr. C. Neill Epperson

Dr. C. Neill Epperson, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, describes the first three months of the pandemic as a sprint, with most of us figuring out how we’re going to make quarantine work and gathering as much information as possible. Now she sees the situation as a marathon. “Many people are physically and emotionally exhausted, but there is hope,” she says.

The sheer number of things that we worry about daily, things that could potentially impact our health and our loved ones’ health, is overwhelming. Did I disinfect everything? Should I let my kids play with our neighbors? Should I send my kids to school in person? Should I socialize with that friend or take an exercise class? Berkowitz describes it as a form of water torture, with questions constantly drip, drip, dripping. Unfortunately, most answers are unclear, and the problems seem continual. But, there are ways of dealing with pandemic stress and anxiety and enjoy life again.

Methods for dealing with pandemic stress:

Sleep well

“One problem we hear a lot of is that nobody feels like they’re sleeping well,” says Berkowitz. “Chronically not sleeping well can make you more irritable, more tired, less energetic, and is something that people should really pay attention to and just not accept.

One strategy he recommends is to set aside time during the late afternoon to, basically, write down your worry list. If you’re able to focus on your worries at this time and compartmentalize them, they won’t intrude on your sleep at night.

Stratton suggests protecting your sleep from technology. It’s so easy for us, these days, to lay in bed reading negative news stories or mindlessly scrolling through our social media feeds. But that habit before bed can interfere with your body and mind relaxing and falling asleep.

And lastly, if you’re having a hard time and strategies are not working, try a sleep aid like melatonin or other sleep medication for a period of time, says Berkowitz. “No one should feel that they need to be brave and not use sleep aids at this point.”

Find the things that bring you joy

Focus or find things that make you feel accomplished, joyful or connected. Whether it’s reading a book in the afternoon or watching videos of your children when they were babies, these activities can alter your mood and mindset. “Focus on the times you feel nourished or uplifted, and experiment doing those activities to the extent that they are helpful,” says Dimidjian.

Stratton says to take breaks from work or things that feel like work. Schedule time for fun, she recommends, and keep fun sacred from the things that are not fun.

Give yourself credit

We’re all trying the best we can, but sometimes it feels like all we’re doing is worrying and not accomplishing anything. “One of the mistakes that most of us make is we don’t realize what we’re doing [and accomplishing], and we minimize our activities,” says Berkowitz. “I think it’s important for people to take the time to realize all the things they’ve actually done and not set unrealistic expectations for themselves.” Everything, he says, takes more planning because our lives are not running as usual, and we need to acknowledge that we are doing more work than we usually do.

Pay attention to your feeling so you can make appropriate changes

Epperson says to pay attention to your negative feelings so you can figure out strategies to mitigate them. “It’s hard when it’s this big mass of horribleness,” she says. “You can’t attack individual issues and create coping strategies if the distress is that nebulous.” Do you feel miserable because you’re not sleeping well? Is it a lack of privacy? Is it boredom? Once you realize the root of your negative feelings, you can take that information and problem solve.

“I think we try to move past the bad feeling. But it’s a good idea to stop and pay attention to and not try to distract yourself all of the time. Feeling bad is a message, it’s information you can use to help you find your way forward,” says Epperson.

Find ways to connect in an authentic way

Social support and connection are integral to our lives. “One of the most important things we’re pushing people to do is to interact in authentic ways with friends and others. It’s good to share stresses and things that have worked in terms of being helpful and things to avoid. It’s good to problem-solve together,” says Berkowitz.

It’s helpful not just to think we’re in this together but also to hear from your close friends and family members that they’re going through similar stresses and issues as you, says Berkowitz.

“We’re social animals, and whenever we’re overwhelmed, or whenever we want to celebrate, we come together. The more of that that we can do, reasonably and safely, the better.” Is your husband driving you crazy? Are you battling your teenager or struggling to keep your elementary school child away from her friends? It’s helpful to hear that your friends’ husbands are equally as irritating.

When should you seek professional help?

While feeling stressed and anxious is common these days, if you’re not able to function, you may need to see a behavioral health expert. “The number one criterion that is on almost any mental health disorder is not being unable to function in one’s life as compared to previous functioning,” says Stratton.

Whether it’s maintaining a relationship, parenting a child, keeping a job, paying bills, sleeping, if you’re feeling impaired, it’s time to get help. Epperson adds that if you’re feeling consistently depressed and panicky, call your primary care doctor or get help from a mental health care provider. If you are having suicidal thinking, don’t wait. Tell someone and get help immediately.

And, if you’re not sure whether you need help or not sure if you’re in worse shape than others, there’s no harm in talking with someone and getting checked out. A mental health check-up can help ward off more serious problems in the future, Epperson says.

About the author

Joelle Klein is a Colorado-based freelance health and lifestyle writer. She regularly writes for UCHealth Today, Colorado Health & Wellness Magazine and Bottom Line Health. Her articles and blogs have appeared in 5280, Skiing, Fit Pregnancy, Pregnancy, the Denver Post, PBS Next Avenue, AARP, and the American Lung Association, among dozens of other health-related print and digital publications.
Joelle earned her bachelor’s degree in English at New York University and her master’s degree in journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) and American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). Joelle lives in Denver with her husband and their two daughters. In her limited spare time, she enjoys cooking, reading, hiking, biking, camping, theater, travel, and spending quality time with her family.