Mental Health

Helpful actions to manage your COVID-19-related mental health stress

Monica Pham

The year 2020 has been a difficult one across the globe - COVID-19 health risks, fear of income/job loss, increased isolation, and significant changes to lifestyles due to lockdowns have led to mental health challenges for many. In addition, those diagnosed with COVID-19 itself are also more vulnerable to mental illness, in part due to potential neurological complications such as stroke and delirium (World Health Organisation, 2020).

When things start to feel overwhelming, it can be helpful for individuals to return to a  simple structure by taking small and attainable steps to improve mental wellbeing. The question is - what are some helpful, simple coping behaviours that might ease distress during COVID-19 according to research?

To explore this, a team of researchers from Spain in collaboration with the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities conducted a survey of 5545 adults from Spain. The data was collected two weeks after a national lockdown was implemented in early 2020. 

The aim of the research was to investigate how different self-care behaviours related to people’s experience of depression and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19. 

Method

To do this, the researchers collected data via an online survey which was shared via social networks. The survey asked participants questions relating to demographics (e.g., age, gender, work status), symptoms of anxiety (via GAD-7), symptoms of depression (via PHQ-9), risk of exposure to COVID-19, and about any recent exposure to positive and/or negative significant life events (e.g., the birth of a child). 

In addition, participants were also asked about the frequency in which they engaged in a variety of different self-care behaviours over a 2-week time period.

These included behaviours such as:
• Talking to family and friends
• Undertaking physical exercise
• Eating a healthy/balanced diet
• Spending time in nature/outdoors
• Pursuing a hobby
• Doing relaxing activities (e.g., listening to music, yoga etc.)
• Reading about COVID-19 on the news/social media 

The study used regression analysis to determine which self-care activities were the best predictors of lower anxiety and lower depression symptoms. 

Findings

There were several key findings from this research:

Mental health symptoms are a common experience
The study found that about 65 per cent of respondents some reported experiencing some form of anxiety or depressive symptoms during the survey period. This suggests that the experience of anxiety (e.g., feeling nervous, restless, worried) or depression symptoms (e.g., trouble sleeping, feeling down, lack of energy) is common during COVID-19.

Reducing Anxiety Symptoms
Eating a healthy/balanced diet and watching less news/media about COVID-19 were the two self-care behaviours that related most strongly to lower anxiety levels. This suggests that prioritising your nutrition and setting up boundaries for your own news consumption may go a long way in easing anxiety related to COVID-19.

Reducing Depression Symptoms
Eating healthy and watching less news/media about COVID-19 were also strong predictors of lower depression symptoms. In addition, the study also found other significant predictors such as: spending time in nature/outdoors, following a familiar routine and pursuing a hobby. These findings suggest that there many helpful behaviours/activities beneficial to those experiencing low mood.

The findings of this research remind us that even the smallest of actions can make a difference to our mood and functioning. By turning the research learnings into micro-habits, we all have an opportunity to create even greater momentum with our own health.

Here are some ideas for where you could start:

  1. Increasing your fruit and veggie consumption. Start small by incorporating one additional serve of fresh fruit or vegetable each day for a week. 
  2. Limiting your COVID-19 news intake to once a day. Allow yourself a set timeframe (e.g., 15 min) to browse news from reputable sources and try not to go over this. Disable mobile alerts/notifications so that you can control when and how news is pushed to you.  
  3. Create a routine around connecting with family and friends. Pick a time and day where you will regularly connect with close family member or friend. For example, every Tuesday morning during your commute to work. 
  4. When you’re feeling down, take a step outside. It’s tempting to retreat indoors when you’re having a bad day. Instead, take a moment to go outside, breathe in the outdoor air, or take a short walk to recharge. Even 5 minutes can make all the difference. 

    To read the original research study article, see here.

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