Anxiety, depression will likely surge during coronavirus pandemic — here's how to combat it

In twin studies from the Journal of American Medical Association on Friday, researchers explore not only what may be putting those with mental health issues at more risk, but what can be done to mitigate it. (Photo: Getty Images)

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, doctors and nurses are scrambling to treat the more than 1.8 million individuals who have been infected worldwide. Federal and local governments in the U.S. have also ramped up efforts to contain it, ordering residents to shelter at home until further notice.

But in a new study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on Friday, experts urge Americans to be cognizant of another threat — mental health issues.

“Large-scale disasters, whether traumatic or environmental are almost always accompanied by increases in depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorder, a broad range of other mental and behavioral disorders,” the authors write. “In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears likely that there will be substantial increases in anxiety and depression, substance use, loneliness, and domestic violence.”

The authors go on to note that “multiple aspects” of the lockdowns that many U.S. states have implemented can be triggers for mental health issues, including economic stress, social isolation, decreased access to community and religious support, and barriers to mental health treatment. In an effort to combat these obstacles, here are some ways to keep you feeling your best.

Acknowledge what’s happening

Dr. Jen Hartstein, psychologist and Yahoo Lifestyle’s Mental Health Contributor, suggests that accepting what’s happening may be the first step towards healing. “Events like this impact our mental health because they cause instability in our lives… creating disruption to our daily routines, causing us to have increased worry about the disease, how it will impact our lives and our loved ones, etc,” she says. “We don’t have a gauge as to how to manage a global situation such as the one we are currently facing. The traumatic nature of the situation triggers different emotional reactions for many of us, frequently depression and anxiety.” Noticing these feelings, without reacting to them, may allow you to move forward with a plan.

Combat loneliness with routines and virtual activities

While stuck inside, the JAMA researchers suggest it’s important to recognize the “inevitability of loneliness.” Instead of resenting this, they recommend using it as fuel to create a daily routine that incorporates as many of your regular activities as possible. “The use of digital technologies can bridge social distance, even while physical distancing measures are in place,” the authors write, adding, “Online substitutes for daily routines, as mentioned above, can be extremely helpful.”

If you haven’t yet, look for digital ways to connect with the people and things you enjoy, such as religious services, yoga studies, classes and visits with friends. Hartstein agrees. “Social distancing is solely physical,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We can stay connected to others in so many ways, and it is important that we do so. We are all in this together, literally and figuratively.”

Enlist a support system to do check-ins

Although social media can sometimes cause anxiety, the researchers note that it also serves an important role. “Social media can also be used to encourage groups to connect and direct individuals to trusted resources for mental health support. These platforms can also enhance check-in functions to provide regular contact with individuals as well as to allow people to share with others information about their well-being and resource needs,” they write.

Look for signs that mental health is slipping

One active way to combat mental health issues during the pandemic is to pay close attention your mood, and that of your loved ones — and to speak up if you observe a change. “If you notice that someone close to you is struggling, it’s important to try to access help for them. You may observe that they are crying more than usual, or not returning phone calls and isolating, or avoiding any interaction,” says Hartstein. “Maybe they are more irritable and short-tempered. If you notice any significant behavioral change, ask them about it. Let them know what you observe, nonjudgmental, and open up a conversation.” Checking in on each other can especially be important for victims of domestic violence, which has shown an uptick during the coronavirus crisis.

Try telehealth as an option for treatment

It may be tough to imagine talking about your emotions over a Zoom call, but the researchers say that it can be a powerful tool to help you cope. “Telemedicine mental health visits, group visits, and delivery of care via technology platforms will be important components of stepped care for both acute crisis management and more routine communication and support,” they write. “Health systems, both public and private sector, will need to develop mechanisms for refill and delivery of essential medicines, including psychiatric medicines.” Hartstein notes that many cities also have help lines that can be relied on during times of crisis. “Lean on your supports,” she says.

Put down your phone and get moving

Although social media and other apps can provide an important way to connect with others, Harstein says it’s important to recognize that sometimes your mind needs a break. “It’s easy to be on screens more right now because it’s available. It’s also easy to become immersed in the news and things that will spike your anxiety,” says Hartstein. “Use your screen time wisely. Set times to check the news. Create time that you are completely off the screens.” And as for what to do instead? Simple: Move. “Movement triggers your dopamine, which is the ‘feel-good’ hormone,” says Hartstein. “It’s hard to activate that sometimes but we know movement helps. Do an online class, dance, go for a walk.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.