As the coronavirus pandemic rapidly sweeps across the world, it is inducing a considerable degree of fear, worry and concern in the population at large and among certain groups in particular, such as older adults, care providers and people with underlying health situations.
In public mental health terms, the main psychological impact to date is elevated rates of stress or anxiety.
- Understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic and measures to prevent the virus’ transmission affect our mental health can help us adapt;
- From focusing on everyday boosts to mental health to empowering our communities, these expert recommendations can help.
- Improving our mental health hygiene now could help us create a “new normal” for mental well-being in the future.
Our traditional media and social media feeds are filled with urgent and often conflicting imperatives to change our routines and be constantly vigilant.
The online onslaught of rapidly updating media stories reporting worst-case scenarios can fuel fear and panic. Uncritical overconsumption of such messages can erode one of our most precious and essential human resources for weathering the COVID-19 storm: our mental health.
Even before the virus outbreak, depression and anxiety have been noted as defining features of our times. Isolation and uncertainty are not going to help us deal with the new realities of our newly virtual lives – virtual work, virtual schools and virtual family care – under the incredible stress of unfamiliar circumstances.
Firstly, there are five facts about stress, the brain and mental health that can help. There is virtually no disease, illness or injury that is not aided by good mental health. Why?
- Our brains and our immune system are deeply linked to each other. The immune system is the prime mediator of environmental agents such as microbes, chemicals and the infamous COVID-19.
- Stress is normal and can be healthy (and spur healthy behaviours: think of a zebra trying to escape a rapidly approaching lion), but too much sustained stress is not. High and unregulated levels of stress have a number of negative consequences on the brain, immunity and the vascular system, leading to blood sugar imbalances, high blood pressure and impaired immunity and inflammatory responses – the very precise opposite of what we need to fight the potential impact from COVID-19 exposure.
- Physical exercise is an essential component of improving both physical and mental health and regular exercise has been linked to changes in brain connectivity, and increases in brain growth factors (e.g. brain-derived neurotrophic factor) and reductions in oxidative stress which damages cells and tissue.