The Mental Health Survival Guide to the Pandemic
Fear, boredom, and restlessness are the early signs of a potential problem.
Posted Mar 15, 2020
You all know that the coronavirus pandemic is spreading rapidly around the globe. If you’re an average person, you are shocked by what’s happening. The world we live in is grinding to an unprecedented halt. Businesses are closing temporarily. Employees are being told to work from home. Schools are being closed. The sports industry is shutting down. Social distancing is the new catchphrase for 2020. Make no mistake, this is all being done for good reason. The lives of millions of people around the globe depend upon these drastic measures.
How will you and your family get through this?
It’s early days yet in America. Most of these measures are only just beginning. Most people can do anything for a few days. This will almost certainly go on for weeks, but some are predicting many months. As time goes on, it’s going to get more and more difficult. One threat to the health and welfare of America’s population, in addition to the coronavirus itself, is the effect of this on mental health. The biggest immediate threats are fear, boredom, and restlessness. As time goes on, loneliness and depression will be added to the list. For those with preexisting mental illness, the stress of all of this may very well be taking a more dramatic toll already.
Let’s unpack the threats
There are two primary sources of fear right now, the coronavirus itself and the economy.
Fear of the coronavirus itself is obvious and straightforward. It revolves around keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe and also looking out for the safety of others in our communities. The world has abruptly changed. We tune into the news and hear the daily updates on how many people are infected and how many have died. We are told to stock up on essential supplies so we can stay home for a while. We go to the supermarkets and see panicked people wiping down carts and sanitizing their hands. We immediately worry about the germs on everything we touch. We see people hoarding toilet paper, Kleenex, and cleaning supplies. We see that they are sold out everywhere, making us question if we have enough. When will more come in? Are we behind on preparing for this emergency?
Many of us are becoming hypersensitive to any physical symptoms that we might have. A stuffy nose. A random cough. Not feeling quite as much energy as normal. Do I have the coronavirus? Will I survive it? Am I going to give it to someone else? Why can’t I get tested for it?
Fear about our lives, our livelihoods, and our savings are skyrocketing. Employees of airlines, hotels, restaurants, sporting events, and other decimated industries are panicked. They see their jobs and their industries blowing up, at least temporarily, in an unprecedented way that no one saw coming. Within just a couple of weeks, they are now worrying and ruminating about whether or not they will have a job. Will they get laid off? How long will this last? When will things return to normal? In the meantime, how will they pay their bills?
The stock market downturn has been one of the most dramatic declines in history. It’s reportedly the fastest time to a bear market ever (defined as a 20 percent or more decline in stock valuations). There are wild swings in the market daily, both up and down. People watching their plummeting retirement accounts are worried. One man commented that he feels like his 401(k) just got turned into a "201(k)." Regardless of how much money people had in their accounts, seeing the dramatic declines is disconcerting, to say the least.
Boredom and Restlessness
As people practice their social distancing and hole up in their homes, two prominent feelings are likely to emerge, boredom and restlessness. Many are already experiencing these feelings. As benign as these might sound to some people, boredom and restlessness can get people into trouble if they last a long time.
Humans are creatures of habit. We have our routines. We stick to our daily schedules.
The alarm goes off. Get up. Take a shower and get dressed. Get the kids to school. Get to work on time. Do what you need to do there. Pick up the kids. Get home. Make dinner. Relax in front of the TV. Go to bed. And repeat.
Schedules and responsibilities differ, but most people have a routine. Routines keep us on task and productive. They allow us to accomplish the things that we have prioritized in our lives—our careers or jobs, having a family, taking care of elderly parents, taking care of pets, spending time with friends, getting projects done around the house, etc. As we build our lives and prioritize what we want to include in them, we adjust our routines to fit everything in. Routines help us go on “autopilot” as we take care of the priorities in our lives. They keep us on task without having to think about it.
When our routines are disrupted, accomplishing the priorities in our lives can be severely compromised. Many people begin to feel lost. They aren’t quite sure what they are supposed to be doing with their time. They begin to have too much free time on their hands. They come up with some tasks to do, but at the end of the day, they may feel that they didn’t accomplish as much as they normally do. This leaves them feeling distressed, bored, or restless.
The routines of Americans have been severely disrupted. This has occurred with unprecedented speed and has affected an unprecedented number of people. What will happen as a result?
In the end, only time will tell. If this all blows over soon, maybe nothing significant will come of it. But if this persists, as many predict it will, there are some important risks to watch out for. Read part 2 of this post, which highlights some of the near-term risks, such as mindless activity, increased alcohol and substance use, loneliness, and depression.