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The Pandemic's Impact on Well-being

Key findings from an APA survey of 3,000 adults.

by Eva Ritvo, MD, Lina Haji, Psy.D., Laura Baker, PhD, and Julie Albright, PhD

We all know the pandemic has affected us in drastic ways. Researchers are now beginning to examine the toll the pandemic has taken. The American Psychological Association conducted a survey of 3000 adults over age 18 in February 2021 to assess the impact of the previous year.

Here are the key findings:

  • A majority of adults (61%) reported experiencing undesired weight changes since the start of the pandemic: 42 percent gained weight, reporting an average of 29 pounds.
  • 2 in 3 Americans (67%) said they are sleeping more or less than they wanted to since the pandemic started. One-third were sleeping more, and a similar proportion were sleeping less.
  • 23 percent reported drinking more alcohol to cope with stress during the pandemic.
  • Nearly half of Americans (47%) said they delayed or canceled health care services since the pandemic started.
  • Nearly half of parents (48%) said the level of stress in their life has increased; 62 percent of parents whose children were remote learning reported the same.
  • Essential workers were more than twice as likely as non-essential workers to have received treatment from a mental health professional (34% vs. 12%) and to have been diagnosed with a mental illness since the pandemic started (25% vs 9%)
  • Black Americans were most likely to report feelings of concern about the future. More than half said they feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction when the pandemic ends.
  • Gen Z adults (46%) were the most likely generation to say that their mental health has worsened, followed by Xers (33%), Millennials (31%), Boomers (28%) and older adults (9%).

(APA, Stress in America, 2021)

Other studies indicate substance use has spiked during the pandemic, particularly opioid and stimulant use (APA, Substance use during the pandemic, 2021).

To correct these issues, we must specify the causes of stress. Working from home may have initially seemed desirable and convenient, yet it proved to have many challenges. Prior to the pandemic, home was largely considered a safe space, a place to relax and unwind, and a place to interact with loved ones or enjoy solitude. The pandemic has muddied those waters, making home the office, requiring us not just to “work from home” but to “live at work,” multitask, and reframe how we view and utilize our living spaces. In addition, prior to the pandemic, we were all conditioned to get up, get ready, and head out. The pandemic and subsequent working from home may have decreased our potential to work at peak capacity. It is challenging to prepare for a presentation, so to speak, from the living room couch.

Human interaction has decreased immensely with serious consequences. Thankfully, technology has allowed us to see and speak to loved ones, interact with coworkers and supervisors, and chat with friends. It is imperative to note that not all of us have access to the internet from home. People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and people from rural areas may have less access; the exact size of the problem is largely unknown. (Ovide, S., NYTimes, 2021) For those of us lucky enough to have access to the internet, the human touch is missing, and our senses of sight and sound have had to compensate for our senses of touch and smell. The 24/7 access to technology has also increased stress levels. Many of us have become glued to our cell phones, keep our laptops open, and respond to emails and texts at all hours of the day and even night. This in turn makes the structure of the workday confusing, making “9-5” obsolete, and further blurring boundaries, leading to many saying they have the feeling of “living at work.” Parents have had to juggle all of this on top of the monumental task of caring for their children and facilitating home school. Zoom fatigue is affecting not only workers, but students who are expected to stare at screens for up to 8 hours a day, and then at night to do homework.

The result is unprecedented levels of stress. Not all stress is bad; a certain amount helps to keep us motivated, alert, and productive. The downside of prolonged stress, however, is an overactive nervous system, which can result in depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, changes in appetite, increased substance use, cardiovascular issues, and even stroke — all of which seemed to have increased during the pandemic. If you find that your mood, sleep, and appetite are impacted by the pandemic, it is important to increase self-care.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Sleep. Try to normalize your sleep schedule. Sticking to the same sleep and wake time helps us maximize the effectiveness of our time in bed. Use the bed for the 3 S’s only: Sleep, Sex, and Sick. Don’t work or watch TV in bed. Use another space so you train your brain that the bed is for sleeping and restoration.
  2. Nourish your brain. Focus on high-quality healthy foods like vegetables and fruits. Avoid junk food that gives us false energy. The same goes for coffee: A small amount might be OK but an excess leads to problems. Alcohol and marijuana give a false sense of calm and lead to sleep, mood, and cognitive disorders. Choose wisely: Every time you eat or drink you have an opportunity to take good care of yourself. Avoid eating close to bedtime: Experts recommend not eating for three hours prior to sleeping, so your body has sufficient time to digest the food.
  3. Assess your daily schedule. Write it down if needed. Taking just a few minutes to log the time you wake up, the time you go to sleep, the times you eat, and the times you take breaks will bring an increased awareness to how you are spending your day.
  4. Set clear boundaries. Make sure you are not falling into the trap of the unending work day and work week. If your job duties can wait, turn off email and phone notifications at 6 pm. Put aside 20-30 minutes of “me time,” and engage in an activity that helps reduce stress such as warm bath, a guided meditation, a walk, or other activity that allows your mind to relax and recharge. Reach out to friends and family even just for a quick chat to avoid isolation. If you are into yoga, set boundaries around your practice: Mark the beginning by chanting “Om” a few times or doing some intention setting, and be sure to have a good Savasana (“corpse pose”) to mark the end.
  5. Exercise. If you can’t make it to a gym, there are plenty of exercise videos and tutorials for free online, and Peloton and Mirror have been a hit with many.
  6. Journal. Yes, journaling requires motivation and discipline, but start small. Utilize this pandemic as an opportunity to grow and write down your thoughts, feelings, and goals, even if they are just one-liners. Remember that the pandemic has affected every one of us; you are not alone. “Bullet journaling” has become popular, and gives the opportunity for fun, creativity, and artistic expression to go along with keeping track of the happenings in your life.
  7. Calm your nervous system. We must actively work to counteract stress. Take a warm bath or shower, eat slowly with good company or calm music, hug a pet, try Tai Chi or yoga. You can find free mediations on YouTube. Online yoga classes with world-class teachers are also widely available.
  8. Digital detox. Our brains were not designed to look at screens all day. Try to take a break every hour to walk around, consider a standing desk, and take weekends away from devices. Charge your phone away from your bedroom. Set aside “sacred spaces” where you set aside devices — like the family dinner table or lunch with a friend. Read a book instead of looking at a device before bed.
  9. Have fun. Our brain still needs happy chemicals. We are missing a lot by not being together and not going to new places. Find safe activities you will enjoy and build them into your schedule. A friend is taking cello lessons on Zoom and my sister has taken up bird watching. Another friend who lived alone continued her weekly piano lessons on FaceTime, and found the piano to be a good friend and companion during the lockdown. Since we are all out of our routine, it is a great time to add something new that will bring you joy.
  10. Be grateful. Although we have faced many challenges, we also have much to be grateful for. You will feel better if you can shift your focus. Writing a list and sharing your gratitude with others can reinforce these positive emotions. Send a letter or text to someone who has been kind and helpful to you during the pandemic.
  11. Practice kindness. Be kind to yourself. Monitor your self-talk and make sure it is encouraging. These are challenging times and we can all use a kind word. Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see.” If you would like to live in a kinder world, follow his advice. Treat yourself well, and be kinder to those around you, including those you don't know. Kindness is a powerful emotion and helps both the giver and the receiver. Be kind and observe how you feel. Hopefully you will experience what others call “giver’s gain and helper’s high."
  12. Get support. Talk to friends, family, and mental health professionals. Mental health issues are impacting almost all of us so don’t be shy about needing some extra help at this time.

    To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.