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Building resilience: Mental health lessons from COVID-19

Paul C. Schoenfeld, PhD, psychologist, The Everett Clinic and The Polyclinic

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The Everett Clinic and The Polyclinic, both part of Optum in Washington State, serve almost 600,000 patients across five counties.

Based near Seattle, with 33 locations and more than 850 clinicians, these two medical groups are recognized for high-quality, affordable care where patients are treated like family.

COVID-19 continues to cause problems. Its presence is everywhere, increasing our chances of getting sick, going to the hospital and dying. It has also affected food distribution, work productivity and our social lives.

These issues have negatively impacted our mental health and well-being.1–3

As a psychologist practicing at both The Polyclinic and The Everett Clinic in Everett, Washington, I see patients across socioeconomic segments of the population. Everyone — whether they are working at tech giants or blue-collar jobs — has been touched by this crisis.

While we don't yet know the long-term impacts of the pandemic, important lessons are emerging. These lessons can help us build resilience and restock our reservoirs of inner peace. I refer to them as the good, the bad and the ugly lessons learned from the pandemic.

The good: Better work hours and telemedicine

Just as we recognize and learn from the pandemic's negative effects, we also need to learn from the positive ones. The two most apparent are more flexible workplaces and better access to mental health services through telemedicine.

Working from home has become the new normal for many people during the pandemic.4 In the early days of COVID-19, for instance, nearly half of the businesses in the United States implemented telecommuting policies.5

Working from home reduces commuting-related stress and can improve work-life balance.

Necessity also pushed the need for more and better access to telemental health services.

There is now better access for patients who were once shut out of mental health services. I can now counsel patients who are homebound, are in hospice care or have physical limitations or issues that prohibit travel to the clinic.

While telemental health services have been available for some time, the pandemic prompted health care professionals and patients to have a more favorable view of them.

The bad: Feeling lonely and isolated

To slow the spread of COVID-19, we've often been told to stay home. This increased social isolation and loneliness.3 Being alone and isolated put people at a higher risk for many physical and mental conditions, including heart disease, obesity and depression.6

Two groups of people have been particularly vulnerable: older adults living independently and younger adults in their 20s and 30s who work in high-tech jobs and live alone.

It's hard for older people to connect with family members when they're afraid of getting COVID-19. They also have anxiety and grief over losing others in their social circle to the virus. And they are unable or afraid to visit their doctors for regular checkups.

Younger adults, in addition to struggling with social isolation, have also experienced a decline in work productivity and accountability.

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The ugly: Impact on relationships

The pandemic has also compounded or introduced mental health problems for individuals in relationships, with a partner or as a family unit.

The unusual and long periods of living in close contact with partners, without the typical social outlets, has placed a burden on relationships.

Studies show that domestic violence incidents increased 8.1% in the United States during periods of pandemic-induced lockdowns.7

Overall, there are more conflicts. Plus, the increase in alcohol and drug use or abuse, a key concern of my patients, raises the chances of having domestic conflicts.

Parents also struggle with work-life balance while trying to manage their children’s educational and social needs.

An epidemic of anxiety

The pandemic has created an environment of constant threat. Our bodies can adapt to short periods of stress. But a constant sense of threat and sympathetic nervous system arousal can lead to exhaustion and negative effects on multiple organ systems.8

In my practice, this has manifested as an epidemic of anxiety. The pandemic-induced anxiety and vigilance is akin to the experience of living in a war zone.

Tips to help build resilience

Given the range and length of the pandemic's impact on our mental health and well-being, we need to understand that recovery will take time. With this in mind, it's more important than ever to focus on healing.

Here are some lessons from the pandemic and beyond that can help us build resilience:

  • Take advantage of resources that can improve your overall physical and mental well-being. Engage in physical activities, improve eating habits, enjoy nature and manage alcohol use. A better lifestyle may help with any pandemic-related weight gain as well.
  • Consider adding mind-body practices, such as yoga and tai-chi, to your daily routine. Use meditation apps to help learn coping skills. Start small, with five minutes a day a few times a week.
  • Focus on health maintenance measures, such as seeing your physician, dentist or eye doctor.
  • Connect with others. Pace yourself when planning for social activities. Don't expect to make up for lost time.
  • Be patient with yourself. Better psycho-emotional habits can be learned, but will take time.
  • For clinicians, ask your patients what positive and negative impacts the pandemic has had on their lives. This proactive approach can help them reflect on their experiences.

With a deliberate and mindful approach for prioritizing our mental and physical well-being, we can come out of this crisis as more resilient individuals.

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  1. Filippini ELY and F. Social and economic impact of COVID-19. Brookings. Published June 8, 2021. Accessed August 13, 2021. https://www.brookings.edu/research/social-and-economic-impact-of-covid-19/
  2. World Health Organization. Impact of COVID-19 on people’s livelihoods, their health and our food systems. Published October 2020. Accessed August 12, 2021. https://www.who.int/news/item/13-10-2020-impact-of-covid-19-on-people's-livelihoods-their-health-and-our-food-systems
  3. Killgore WDS, Cloonan SA, Taylor EC, Dailey NS. Loneliness: A signature mental health concern in the era of COVID-19. Psychiatry Res. 2020;290:113117. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113117
  4. Ipsen C, van Veldhoven M, Kirchner K, Hansen JP. Six Key Advantages and Disadvantages of Working from Home in Europe during COVID-19. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(4):1826. doi:10.3390/ijerph18041826
  5. Birimoglu Okuyan C, Begen MA. Working from home during the COVID‐19 pandemic, its effects on health, and recommendations: The pandemic and beyond. Perspect Psychiatr Care. Published online May 18, 2021:10.1111/ppc.12847. doi:10.1111/ppc.12847

This publication is informational and for educational purposes for practitioners only. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Optum Care. The views and opinions expressed may change without notice.