There's a lot to be stressed about lately due to the coronavirus pandemic: Confirmed cases of COVID-19 keep rising, stock market volatility is causing panic, jobs are at risk and store shelves are emptying. But there's a lot more at stake here than toilet paper. I'm talking about mental health, particularly for millennials.
As a therapist who has worked intimately with millennials (they make up 90% of my practice) for much of the past decade, it worries me that quarantine and social distancing could potentially lead to more severe long-term mental health issues for this young generation.
Mental health: Millennials at greater risk
According to a 2019 report from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, major depression diagnoses are rising at a faster rate for millennials — a 47% increase since 2013 — compared to any other age group. And a 2018 survey from the American Psychiatry Association found that they are by and large the most anxious generation.
As of late, some of my clients have expressed "feeling paralyzed" by "loneliness from social isolation" or by the "fear that I [or my parents] will get sick." When asked what she's doing about her anxiety, one millennial responded, "Honestly, I can't afford to think about it. I'm too busy trying to keep up with work and making sure I have enough food for the week."
The lack of concern is just as unsettling: Even though new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that young Americans are at substantial risk of serious medical problems from COVID-19, many millennials still have the mentality that "it isn't a big deal and doesn't affect me."
While the coronavirus dangers are real, anxiety-inducing distractions make it far too easy for millennials (even those with pre-existing issues) to overlook mental health implications. A new study published in The Lancet found that quarantine is linked with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, confusion and anger — with some research suggesting these effects are long-lasting.
That's why I'm urging millennials to wake up: Don't be reckless and flout the advice to stay in, but also don't stay so cooped up that you go stir crazy over fears of the unknown.
During such a tumultuous time, adopting strategies to protect your mental health (or prevent it from worsening) will not only help you become comfortable with uncertainty and variables beyond your control, it will also make your loved ones — and your community — much stronger.
Ways to protect your mental health in the age of coronavirus
During such a tumultuous time, adopting strategies to protect your mental health (or to prevent it from worsening) will not only help you become comfortable with uncertainty and variables beyond your control, it will also make your loved ones — and your community — much stronger.
Here are some tips on how to do that:
1. Take time to reflect on your own feelings
Social distancing and working from home can be a dreadful experience, but there's a silver lining: It offers you the space and opportunity to focus on yourself.
Instead of saying, "It sucks that I can't hang out with my friends," use this time to ask yourself questions like: How do I feel about this current situation? How is it affecting my actions and behaviors?
Don't judge or be ashamed of your feelings. Understand that it's okay to feel fear, sadness, frustration, confusion, loneliness or guilt.
2. Stick to your old routines (as much as possible)
The coronavirus has altered how we live our daily lives, but that doesn't mean everything has to change.
Stay close to your normal routine by maintaining some semblance of structure from your pre-quarantine days. If working from home is new to you, for example, start your day the same way you would if you were heading into the office.
During a period of constant change, having some sort of familiarity in your daily activities can make life feel more manageable. Studies have also found that our bodies tend to function better when eating, sleeping and exercise patterns are set to a regular schedule.
3. Go outside
Just because we've been advised to stay in as much as possible, it doesn't mean we need to be imprisoned in our homes. If you find yourself dwelling on your problems and unable to stop, go for a walk — around the block to the closest green space.
Research says that exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally and mentally, it also contributes to your physical well-being — reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones. It may even reduce mortality.
4. Focus only on things you can control
With so much uncertainty in the air, it's essential to accept that there's not much you have control of. The most important thing you should be focusing on right now is ensuring the safety of yourself and of those around you.
- Wash your hands often (use sanitizer if you don't have access to soap and water)
- Cover your mouth when you cough and your nose (with a tissue) when you sneeze
- Avoid touching your face whenever possible
- Avoid any non-essential travel
- Leave face masks for medical professionals, caretakers and individuals at higher risk of infection
- Keep your immune system strong by maintaining a healthy diet, exercising and getting an adequate amount of sleep
5. Embrace the uncertainties and focus on the positive things
Speaking of control: Embracing the uncertainties of this pandemic is something my clients struggle with the most. But it's almost impossible to know exactly what the future will look like.
Stop obsessing over things like: What will happen next? Will the grocery shelves be restocked soon? How long will we be trapped in our homes? When will this all end?
Instead, focus on the positive and uplifting moments. For example, despite Italy being one of the worst affected countries by COVID-19, Italians were singing songs from their windows to boost morale. Even in the darkest of times, we must try to find some light.
6. Stay connected
Don't isolate yourself completely. According to studies, loneliness can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Keep in touch with friends, family, neighbors and maybe even your coworkers. Do it through Skype, phone calls, texting, email or any other form of digital communication. Ask how they're doing and let them know how you're doing. Offer support, love and encouragement.
As humans, we are wired to rely on social connection. Staying connected helps us manage stress and guards us against unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drinking and eating too much.
7. Count your blessings
Gratefulness is a powerful tool. Be thankful for your health, body and friends and family.
And don't forget to thank the people who are facing the coronavirus head-on: From doctors and nurses to delivery workers and the folks bagging your groceries, these are the heroes who are knowingly putting themselves at risk to serve the community.
8. Turn off the news
It goes without saving that obsessing over the endless coronavirus coverage will, at some point, drive you (and anyone you live with) absolutely nuts.
9. Seek professional help
To adjust for social distancing, many therapists (myself included) have moved toward telehealth-based platforms. If you find that you need professional help, consider services like BetterHelp and Talkspace, which allow you to communicate with mental health professionals through digital messaging.
The government has also taken steps to ensure more access to telehealth. Additionally, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is making it easier to "e-prescribe" certain controlled substances, including those that treat mental health conditions.
- Crisis counseling for people in emotional distress
- Information on how to recognize distress and its effects on individuals and families
- Tips for healthy coping
- Referrals to local crisis call centers for additional follow-up care and support
The helpline is open 24 hours a day and can be reached by calling 1-800-985-5990.
Tess Brigham is a San Francisco-based psychotherapist and certified life coach. She has more than 10 years of experience in the field and primarily works with millennials and millennial parents.
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