Effects of the Pandemic Lockdowns on Substance Use, Depression Attention and Concentration and Anxiety, and tools to help.
By Britt Gottlich, Psy D
As we are starting to see an end in sight for the pandemic, I have been reflecting on my time as a psychologist for the past year. While the pandemic may be ending, and things are starting to open up and return to a sense of normalcy, I can’t help but wonder what aspects of the pandemic will stick long term, and how I can use what I have learned over the past year to help prepare.
The two biggest complaints people have reported have been difficulty with attention/concentration and social isolation. Having to work from home and quarantine completely changed our lives in regards to daily coping skills we likely did not know we even had. As humans we are social beings. That does not necessarily mean we need to be socializing with friends and family throughout the day to get that need met, it can also be met by riding the subway with others, working in an office place, or interacting with a cashier. “According to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder. She’s also found that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.” Covid-19 took away that normal daily socialization and completely left us to ourselves.
Not only did we become socially isolated, but we lost the basics of self care that we likely didn’t realize we even had incorporated throughout our day until it was gone. For example, a commute to work, as frustrating as it may be at times, gave us the time to mentally prepare for the day and also wind down and let go of the day. The idea that our home is now our office and our office is our home is one that has greatly affected the mental health of individuals. For individuals who find their job stressful, they now may associate their living space as a stressful place as well. If our homes, which by definition should be a place of happiness and safety, now represents a place of stress, what do we do?
We have seen a large increase in substance use, depression, and anxiety throughout this pandemic. The CDC reported “Elevated levels of adverse mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidal ideation were reported by adults in the United States in June 2020. The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%)”. We have no normal social interaction and do not have the natural separation between work and home. Unfortunately for many, work at home may be one piece of the pandemic that is here to stay. Companies no longer need to pay expensive rents for office space or spend money on travel when we have had a year to learn that everything can be done remotely.
We need to learn how to incorporate a healthy routine into our lives that incorporates all these aspects of self care. Here are a few tools I often provide to clients and use myself:
- Set specific work hours. Just because we don’t have a commute and have more time to dedicate to work does not mean we need to. We still have lives outside of our jobs! Make sure start and end times for your day are marked on your work calendar so others can be respectful of those boundaries.
- Take breaks! Working from home does not mean you are not entitled to a lunch break or a few minutes here and there to stretch your legs. You do not need to be glued to a screen, no one can work 9 hours straight!
- Create a separate work space in your home. Don’t work in bed or on the couch as you may start associating those places with stress. Make sure to have a proper desk or setup to work from where you can leave your computer at the end of the day and move to your “living” space.
- Exercise. In New York City especially, most of our commutes include at least some walking. A lot of people have found themselves not moving at all since working remotely. Carve out time each day to move your body. This can include a morning walk, stretching, or more intensive exercise. It doesn’t matter how you move, just try to get in around 20 minutes a day! Also be mindful of the time of day you exercise. Some find mornings helpful to increase energy and get their day started on the right foot, while others find the evenings helpful to wind down. Do what works best for you!
- Socialization. Remember, we are social creatures. Whether it’s getting a coffee in the morning and seeing people on the street, meeting a friend for dinner, or facetiming with family, try to connect with one person throughout any given day.
- Healthy eating and sleep. We need to treat our bodies with love and respect. If we eat junk food we likely won’t feel good both physically and mentally. We need to make sure we are treating our bodies well so that our mental capacity and overall mental health is at its best.
This has been a tough year for us all, but there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s learn from this past year and apply some of these learnings into our futures and prioritizing our wellbeing.