Mental health in times of a pandemic: what can each individual do to lessen the burden?

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Katerina Drakos, a 4th year medical student from the Lisbon School of Medicine and is a member of the Student’s Association of the Faculty of Medicine of Lisbon (AEFML). She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.


Fever, cough, shortness of breath.1 These are the most common symptoms of COVID-19 described by the CDC, and, being a physical disorder, it progresses in a relatively similar way. However, there are other silent, mental disorders that might arise as a consequence of the pandemic and the population is not as well-equipped to recognize the symptoms and find help. These can manifest as changes in eating and sleeping patterns, diminished interest in daily activities, loss of energy and fatigue (all of these commonly found in disorders such as anxiety or depression).2

It’s not a coincidence that during the lockdown the number of domestic violence cases3 and divorce filings4 are rising significantly. Humans are not perfectly equipped to cope with the everyday surge of information that the media constantly shares with the world. As well as this monitorization of cases, the current economic status of the country and endless bombardment of the drastic changes the world will suffer, can have a significant impact on anyone’s mental health.

So, what can each individual do to lessen the burden?

There are a series of actions we can each take individually to reduce the stress and, in some way, avoid entering the realms of mental illness. As stated by the CDC, the following actions may help with coping with the stress of the situation: 5

The first is to take breaks5 from the overwhelming information we persistently receive every day. Constantly checking our social media for updates can exacerbate anxiety symptoms and lead us down a spiral of negative thoughts. And as well as take breaks, it’s important to take care of our body. 5 Whether it’s a yoga, cardio or dance workout, a little bit of exercise every day will help us clear our mind and work our muscles. This is particularly important because exercise releases endorphins which will help us feel more positive and prepare us for the day ahead. 6

Next, it’s important to find time to unwind5, focusing on ourselves as a priority. Instead of thinking of what “could have been” we should focus on the present, and what we can do now that will make our day a little brighter. Whether it’s reading a book or watching a movie, common activities will help separate a “good” day from a “bad” day. Last but not least, don’t forget to connect with others. 5 Although most people are quarantined with family, some people will be alone. And whether you’re living on your own or accompanied, nowadays, technology helps differentiate “alone” from “lonely” and allows us to maintain contact.

It’s clear that living in constant fear takes a toll on our mental health and it’s therefore important to acknowledge that, ultimately, what matters is preserving your health (both physical and mental). Although the worries we face are extremely real, we need to live one step a time and do the things that keep us sane.

References

  1. “Symptoms of Coronavirus.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 Mar. 2020, http://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html.
  2. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. American Psychiatric Association, 2017.
  3. COVID-19 and Violence against Women. http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/emergencies/COVID-19-VAW-full-text.pdf.
  4. “China’s Divorce Spike Is a Warning to Rest of Locked-Down World.” com, Bloomberg, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-31/divorces-spike-in-china-after-coronavirus-quarantines.
  5. “Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Apr. 2020, cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html.
  6. Harber, V J, and J R Sutton. “Endorphins and Exercise.” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1984, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6091217.

About the author

Katerina Drakos is a 4th year medical student from the Lisbon School of Medicine and is a member of the Student’s Association of the Faculty of Medicine of Lisbon (AEFML). She is the Local Exchange Officer at AEFML and works closely with Erasmus+ students at her university. She is particularly interested in mental health and psychiatric disorders and advocates for the freedom of expression and initiatives that keep students well-informed regarding current events.

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