Thriving in the Midst of the Pandemic

Suggestions for how to stay mentally engaged.

Posted Apr 21, 2020

By now, we are a few weeks into the stay at home order. Most of us have friends and family who have lost their jobs or are furloughed. Increasing numbers of people know someone who has become very sick or passed away from COVID-19. It is easy to lapse into feelings of frustration and despair as time wears on. We start to speculate about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on our way of life and our mental well-being. 

Research and observations from past events indicate that we actually have some control over the degree to which this crisis affects us long-term. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

After 9/11 in New York, it was expected that the population would see significant increases in acute traumatic reactions and PTSD. Instead, rates stayed relatively steady, with only small non-significant increases in trauma reactions in the general population of New York. The working hypothesis is that in New York, people became activated. They could take action in response, running away from the bombing, supporting and helping each other, cleaning up, and so forth. 

In contrast, after Katrina in New Orleans, there were significant increases in trauma-related disorders among those affected. With Katrina, people felt helpless and victimized but also had little sense of agency and little room to activate. They had little control regarding the shelter they were sent, and communities were broken up. People were also forced to abandon pets. With far less sense of control about what to do next, trauma reactions were much higher.

How does this relate to the pandemic? Much of our long-term reactions are related to our mental, emotional, and behavioral responses today. If someone is sitting at home, feeling overwhelmed, hoarding supplies, and constantly worrying, their risk for anxiety, depression, and PTSD increases. In contrast, if someone is focused on their own sense of agency and control in their lives, they are less likely to develop serious long-term mental health problems as a result. Even if someone has struggled with these mental health issues in the past, taking some actions to manage their daily lives now can mitigate some of the damage.  

There are great online resources for personal help; check out TAO Connect, Inc. It has materials for coping with COVID-19, mindfulness meditations, and materials for a wide array of common mental health struggles. Simple things like structuring your day and staying busy are helpful. Engaging in activities that help others, but also keep you safe, can be of even greater value. There are many opportunities out there, such as:

  • Make masks and give them to friends and neighbors or donate them to health care facilities. There are many online and Facebook groups to provide help and support for this.
  • Send care packages, meals, and so forth to medical workers and first responders. Medical providers, particularly interns, nurses, and any front-line workers, work long hours with few breaks; showing appreciation helps them and is good for your mental health.
  • Arrange activities with neighbors that still maintain social distance. For example, everyone might step out on their porch or balcony at the same time, and wave and shout to each other.
  • Arrange with neighbors for everyone to go out on their front porch and cheer first responders at a set time.
  • Arrange a front yard, balcony, or online group activity such as a mini-concert, tai chi, or yoga group.
  • Start a WhatsApp group with some people who share an interest in some activity.
  • Order a delivery meal for an elderly or vulnerable neighbor or relative.
  • Leave a thank-you card for your postal delivery person or other delivery drivers.
  • Arrange a video call with a friend group or call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while.
  • Buy an e-gift card from a local business.
  • Volunteer to tutor someone virtually.
  • Foster a dog or cat.

These are just a few of the many ideas out there for staying active and helping others. It is good to remember that in taking action, each of us is helping to improve and protect our own mental health in addition to positively contributing to the well-being of others.