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How to stay mentally healthy as the COVID pandemic goes on


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Jim Schroeder - published on 12/02/20

Don't become a statistic -- take these steps to stay well and flourish during this challenging time.
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As the pandemic continues to ramp up for the winter, even as the hope of a vaccine looms on the horizon, it is becoming clear that COVID-19 has rendered more than infectious disease into our communities.On the top of the list are increased mental health difficulties, including in the workplace.A recent study indicates that 35% of employees nationwide are dealing with depression amidst the pandemic, but few are actually seeking out professional assistance.

A closer examination points to a few revealing statistics: One, it appears that the youngest generation of employees, including those from Generation Z, are struggling most, especially when compared to their elder counterparts (Baby Boomers).Two to three times more young people reported difficulty concentrating on their work while also feeling burnt out or emotionally drained by their job.Findings also indicate that women more than men are reporting challenges with inattention and reduced energy, while 65% of employees who report feeling chronically distracted at work are living with a vulnerable individual.Meanwhile, of those citing depressive-related symptoms, only 1 in 10 has reached out to a colleague and only 7% have sought professional help.

Evidence is increasingly mounting that the long-term mental health outcomes of COVID could be horrendous if we don’t prioritize mental health in the weeks and months ahead.To do this, we must first begin with the “Big 4” as they relate to mental health:sleep, diet, activity, and screen/tech time.

There are now into the thousands of studies that indicate these areas have direct impact on our psychological functioning, and the pandemic has only magnified this.For starters, it is critical to note that while it may be hard to control certain outcomes (e.g., getting more sleep tonight), what is always available to us are our habits—the processes we employ that make a big difference in the short- and long-term.With Advent upon us, this is a great time to start new habits.

First let’s look at the Big 4 …

No matter where you are right now with respect to exercise, pick a simple, reasonable goal and commit yourself to it.It might be adding a 20-minute walk in the morning twice a week, or increasing your typical time on the exercise bike by 10 minutes.

When it comes to your diet, the goal is always to increase water intake and that of whole, natural foods. So, you might pledge to have one completely natural meal a day (I love my oatmeal, bananas, walnuts, cinnamon, and moringa every morning) or drinking only water on weekdays.

Changing your sleep habits might be just going to bed 10 minutes earlier than usual and shutting off all tech 30 minutes before bedtime (screens tend to make it harder to fall asleep).

And finally, speaking of screen time, maybe it is just limiting yourself to 10 minutes of “doomscrolling” a day, or only looking at the news every other day.Whatever the goal, it must be reasonable and practical in comparison to your current habits in order for it to have a chance to become a part of a more healthy routine.

Just as important is your mindset …

Beyond the Big 4, we must increasingly work to cultivate a few specific mindsets, as I noted in a recent article .

As Victor Frankl—a man who almost lost his entire family in the Holocaust while narrowly surviving himself—once said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:the last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances.”And so it is if we are to address unavoidable challenges with the pandemic.

We must work to foster three key perspectives in us and our children:

  1. gratitude vs. disappointment
  2. empathy vs. self-absorption
  3. challenge vs. despair

It is perfectly normal to feel disappointed, self-absorbed, or depressed and despairing, but it is critically important to continuously and intentionally re-orient ourselves to gratitude, empathy, and challenge if we are to be resilient in our current situation.

There is one more significant focus that remains paramount when it comes to staying mentally healthy …

It is the opportunity we have NOW — and this doesn’t change whether we’re sitting in prison or lying in a hospital bed.All of us need to plan for the future and be aware of the past. But when our hearts and souls are anywhere but the present moment, it’s both overwhelming and immobilizing. And it’s a huge factor in why psychological conditions develop.

No matter where we find ourselves in regards to this pandemic, any positive movement will require mindful discernment of what is needed in the moment.Maybe for you that’s a simple cleansing breath and a few minutes of silence each day.Maybe it’s reaching out to a friend or colleague and sharing honestly about the difficulties that are plaguing you.Maybe it means taking advantage of EAP services at work, or contacting a therapist.Or maybe, it means leaving your phone at home, and taking a walk to begin or end your day.

2020 seems to have no limit when it comes to presenting us with challenges, but the promise of our lives—pandemic or otherwise—is that every moment presents us with options to take a better road, no matter where we’ve been, or what lies ahead.

Jim Schroeder is a married father of eight children, a pediatric psychologist, and an endurance athlete. 


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