Corona: How do I Protect Myself and my Mental Health during the Pandemic?

man with FFP2 mask

December 2020: In most parts of the world, we are in lockdown. And still, we have an increasing number of coronavirus cases and a darker season. The impact of the corona pandemic and the lockdown on our mental health mainly concerns depressiveness, anxiety, anger, social isolation as well as loneliness. But we also already gained experience in dealing with a lockdown and we have the chance to celebrate Christmas – even if this year may have to be different from previous years. But different does not necessarily mean something bad. With a little creativity we can seize new opportunities and gain experience, and we learn to appreciate traditions and past celebrations.

The main purpose of the lockdown is to control the pandemic and ultimately save lives. However, it can also provide the foundation for psychological illness. Therefore, proper handling of Corona and lockdown play a crucial role in avoiding psychological consequences and protecting our mental health.

Study review: What does science say about the impact of lockdowns on mental health?

This year, numerous scientists worldwide focused their research on the psychological consequences of lockdowns. A study by Italian researchers (Di Giuseppe et al., 2020) showed no elevated mean scores in psychological distress in their sample during the first lockdown in Italy but nevertheless increased levels of psychological distress were found for women and younger people. Having positive corona cases nearby, more days of lockdown, and having to relocate were also associated with greater psychological distress.

In another Italian study by Gualano and colleagues (2020), higher prevalences of depression and anxiety as well as sleep disorders were identified in the lockdown compared to the prevalences before the lockdown. Factors such as being female, spending more time online (e.g., on social media), or avoiding activities increased the likelihood of at least one mental health risk. However, this risk decreased with increasing age, the absence of work-related problems, and being married or living together.

A study conducted in India by Rehman and colleagues (2020) also focused on the consequences of the lockdown. According to the study, students and employees in the healthcare industry in particular suffered from the consequences of the lockdown and showed higher levels of anxiety, depression, and stress than other occupational groups. In addition, people with family wealth were less affected by these consequences. In a study by the University of Sheffield, the researchers also found that only the announcement of a lockdown was already associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety.

The long-term effects of corona on mental health and psychosomatic complaints are currently being intensively researched.

Why do we find the pandemic and the lockdown so stressful?

First of all, a lockdown means a massive change in our everyday lives – regardless of whether we are in a partial or a full lockdown. Nothing is the same anymore. Our everyday life and our routines are changed, even though they are enormously important for our mental health. They give us security in stressful phases, save mental capacities and regulate our sleep-wake rhythm. Also, a lockdown is an unusual restriction of our freedom, which serves to protect and promote the health of our society, but which nevertheless thwarts our plans for the future and is completely new for us – even if it is only temporary. 

However, not only the lockdown, but also the new situation of a global pandemic brings complex and diverse burdens. We have to cope with numerous uncertainties. Regardless of whether it is the uncertainty that your closest relatives, friends, or yourself could suffer from serious health consequences, or fears of your own existence and the uncertainty of losing your job. Added to this is a rarely experienced social isolation, loneliness, and daily changing rules regarding how to deal with the pandemic. It is difficult for all of us to find our way into a new routine in everyday life. Besides, we have little prior experience in dealing with such a crisis because we experience a threat that we cannot see, smell or hear.

This makes the pandemic a challenge for all of us, but humans are adaptable and we can also adapt to this crisis and make the best of it. Difficult times force us to find creative solutions and to develop ourselves. There are opportunities to emerge from crises stronger than before. The psychologists Tedeschi & Calhoun even described the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth as a “positive psychological change that is experienced as a result of struggling with highly challenging life circumstances”.

So what can we do to strengthen our mental health in the pandemic? 7 tips to improve our mental health during corona

The good news in this turbulent time is that humans are adaptive and capable of learning. Evolution shows us that we can get used to numerous circumstances, and there have been a few throughout the history of mankind. The neuroplasticity of our brain helps us to learn throughout our lives and to develop new habits in thinking and acting – even if it may seem difficult at first. To make it a little easier for us to deal with the new situation, here are a few tips from us to stay mentally strong during a lockdown:

  • Create routines. Routines take away the smallest decisions in everyday life and thus save mental capacities. Furthermore, they have a positive influence on our sleep-wake rhythm, which in turn influences our mental health, and last but not least, with a fixed structure they offer us security in stressful times. Therefore it makes sense, especially in these uncertain times, to establish fixed routines and to put the daily routine back into your control.
  • Maintain social contacts. We are social beings. Try to exchange yourself and talk to others. Whether in an online meeting, by message, letter, phone call or on a walk. Even if you miss hugs and game nights, it is important to be in contact with other people to avoid falling into a hole of social isolation.
  • Make sure you have a little me-time. A lockdown offers you the opportunity to try everything you always wanted to do for yourself, but never had time to do in your free time. How about learning an instrument now, making Christmas cards again, working on a relaxation routine, enjoying craftmanship or performing beauty rituals? Creativity, relaxation and a well-balanced me-time quickly get lost in everyday life. We are used to be in a rush and having a quick lunch in between meetings. What if we consciously use this time for ourselves and learn to become creative again and appreciate the time with ourselves?
  • Be active. Regular activities of various forms have positive effects on our mental health. Studies have shown that cycling improves our self-perception of our general and mental health. It further leads to more vitality, less self-perceived stress and less feelings of loneliness. In addition, running leads to an increased release of endorphins – aka happiness hormones – and can lead to the so-called Runners High, which lifts the mood. Furthermore, exercise naturally has positive effects on our physical fitness and strengthens our bodies in the pandemic.
  • Regulate your bedtime. Our sleep-wake rhythm is strongly related to our mental health. A night of disturbed sleep can result in problems such as reduced performance, concentration difficulties, or mental problems and these unresolved problems can in turn affect sleep. It is a vicious circle that feels very stressful for those affected and is difficult to break once you find yourself in it. 
  • Create a conscious approach to news and do not let yourself be constantly alarmed. We experience a daily flood of information. Online and offline. Especially in these exciting times, push notifications on our cell phones are piling up and it is sometimes hard to get away from them. People quickly get upset about news, changes, or events and share them with others. This constant flood of information costs a lot of attention, mental capacity and can stress you. Set up fixed times when you consume news so that you are informed but not dependent on them. And turn off your push notifications. You should decide for yourself when and what kind of information you need! 
  • Get enough daylight. Daylight has an enormous influence on our mood and our circadian rhythm. Therefore, go out as often as possible, even if only for a short walk. In addition, daylight lamps are helpful on dark winter days so that the sleep hormone melatonin is not released at dusk and you get tired during the day. In addition, the neurotransmitter serotonin is broken down for the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. A lack of serotonin is related to depression (serotonin hypothesis). So if more melatonin is produced, more serotonin is broken down. Therefore a lot of light in winter is also helpful against winter blues or winter depression.

Self-care challenge

What are your tips and experiences to better deal with the lockdown and the ongoing pandemic? Has it had any positive effects on you so far?

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References (click to expand)

Armour, S. (2020). COVID-19 Psychological Research Consortium (C19PRC). The University of Sheffield.

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Di Giuseppe, M., Zilcha-Mano, S., Prout, T. A., Perry, J. C., Orrù, G., & Conversano, C. (2020). Psychological Impact of Coronavirus Disease 2019 Among Italians During the First Week of Lockdown. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11.

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Gualano, M. R., Lo Moro, G., Voglino, G., Bert, F., & Siliquini, R. (2020). Effects of Covid-19 lockdown on mental health and sleep disturbances in Italy. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(13), 4779.

Hazell, J., Cotterill, S. T., & Hill, D. M. (2014). An exploration of pre-performance routines, self-efficacy, anxiety and performance in semi-professional soccer. European Journal of Sport Science, 14(6), 603-610.

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Levine, S. Z., Laufer, A., Stein, E., Hamama‐Raz, Y., & Solomon, Z. (2009). Examining the relationship between resilience and posttraumatic growth. Journal of Traumatic Stress: Official Publication of The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, 22(4), 282-286.

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Rehman, U., Shahnawaz, M. G., Khan, N. H., Kharshiing, K. D., Khursheed, M., Gupta, K. & Uniyal, R. (2020). Depression, anxiety and stress among Indians in times of Covid-19 lockdown. Community mental health journal, 1-7.

Röhr, S., Müller, F., Jung, F., Apfelbacher, C., Seidler, A., & Riedel-Heller, S. G. (2020). Psychosoziale Folgen von Quarantänemaßnahmen bei schwerwiegenden Coronavirus-Ausbrüchen: ein Rapid Review. Psychiatrische Praxis, 47(4), 179. doi:10.1055/a-1159-5562

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Wortman, C. B. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Progress and problems. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 81-90.

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