The coronavirus has affected more than just our physical well-being—it’s also affecting mental health, as many people grapple with the unknowns surrounding the virus. 

In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the world as we know it. There are new health concerns, economic worries and increasing social isolation. These many unknowns can naturally cause anxiety and stress—and for almost half of U.S. adults, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Forty-five percent of U.S. adults say the pandemic has affected their mental health, and 19% say it has had a “major impact,” according to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. While worrying about such a far-reaching and uncertain situation is natural, allowing those worries to get out of control can be damaging.

“Having some fear and anxiety over coronavirus is perfectly normal,” says Peter Bolo, M.D., chairman and medical director of the department of psychiatry for Atlantic Health System’s Overlook Medical Center. “But if anxiety begins to impede your ability to care for yourself or others, it’s a problem.”

In fact, “generalized fear and fear-induced over-reactive behavior … can impede infection control,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Increased Anxiety Accompanies Global Spread of Virus

As COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, has spread around the world, the hardest-hit countries have seen spikes in stress-induced fear, anxiety and depression. For instance, the virus emerged in China in late 2019 and spread rapidly, leading to lockdowns in major cities and thousands of deaths. Since then, China has implemented emergency psychological crisis interventions to reduce the negative impact on public mental health, according to the CDC.

Healthcare workers’ mental health is at particular risk, according to research published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. In the study, which included 1,257 healthcare workers in 34 Chinese hospitals, a considerable number reported experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia and distress, especially those who were directly engaged in diagnosing, treating or providing care to patients with COVID-19.

Healthcare workers are balancing the same worries and fears as other Americans, along with the pressure of making life-and-death decisions for patients and the fear of potentially bringing the virus home to their families. Many healthcare workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 are self-isolating from their families or have been quarantined.

A study of people who have been quarantined during past outbreaks reveals that deteriorating mental health is common. For instance, those who were quarantined during the SARS epidemic in 2013 were more likely to experience acute stress disorder, depression and alcohol abuse. Symptoms were more severe among healthcare workers, and many experienced avoidance behaviors, seeking to minimize contact with patients, even three years later. Some never reported back to work.

5 Ways to Manage Anxiety

Based on the lessons learned from past outbreaks, the CDC recommends that public mental health interventions should be integrated into public health preparedness and emergency response plans. However, the World Health Organization’s strategic preparedness and response plan for COVID-19 does not specify any strategies to address mental health needs of any kind.

Local and national governments may eventually implement programs to address mental health needs for healthcare workers and others in response to the pandemic, but individual employers and healthcare workers can start taking steps now. Consider these five actions to be mindful of mental health and to help manage uncertainty and anxiety—both for yourself and for your employees.

1. Write down your worries. Whatever you’re afraid of, take the time to write out those fears on paper or on your computer, Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told The Washington Post. By articulating your concerns in writing, you can give yourself the opportunity to think through them, and then leave them behind on the page.

2. Talk about your fears. Find a caring person who will listen to your concerns. Don’t expect him or her to provide you with a solution. The goal is to simply share your worries. The other person may have some of the same fears, which can help you feel less alone, or they may have a different perspective that could prove helpful.

3. Focus on your physical health. Prioritize healthy eating, regular exercise and getting plenty of sleep. If you’re taking good care of yourself, you’ll feel better mentally and you’ll be in better shape to fight the virus if you do get sick.

4. Get outside. As often as possible, go outside and take a walk, run or ride your bike. Sunlight helps your body produce serotonin, and higher levels of this hormone correspond to better mood and feelings of calmness and satisfaction, while lower levels are linked to depression and anxiety, according to studies.

5. Stay connected to other people. Even if you can’t physically interact with others right now, make an effort to interact virtually. You can use video apps and messaging apps to talk with family members and friends. Use the pandemic as an excuse to call or text to check on old friends or family members you haven’t seen in a while. Also offer to run errands for neighbors, or join virtual book groups, game nights or supper clubs.

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