3 Essentials for Good Mental Health during the Pandemic

So simple they’re often overlooked, these three things are vital to finding happiness in these crazy times

Image by cottonbro at Pexels

An article came across my newsfeed recently entitled “Americans are the unhappiest they’ve been in 50 years”. It cited COVID-19 as the primary reason along with waning optimism about the future. While these are sufficient reasons alone, I started tabulating all the other things that are contributing to Americans being so unhappy. People have been cooped up due to coronavirus quarantines and deprived of all the normal things they used to enjoy. Loved ones are getting sick and dying. Jobs are disappearing. Our favorite and most enjoyable activities have been taken away. Gaping political and philosophical divisions are causing civil unrest. The list goes on and on.

While all of this provides plenty of reasons for Americans to be unhappy, the truth is that mental health in America has been declining for years. Even before COVID-19 became a concern, 1 in 5 Americans was living with a mental health disorder.

I’ve worked in the field of Nutrition for the past 10 years, so I typically focus on the dietary components that research connects to our decline in mental health. But in this article, I’m going to talk about three things that are not related to diet. Three “keys to happiness” that my mother-in-law learned and then shared with me years ago. They have reshaped my worldview and served as a litmus test during my lifelong battle with depression and anxiety.

Making sure I had these three bases covered helped my mental health before the pandemic and it will continue to help once it is done, but it’s during these times they are more significant. We, humans, are social creatures, so it makes sense that social distancing has led to widespread depression. After months of quarantine, businesses closing and unemployment soaring, it’s no wonder Americans are miserable.

Despite all of that, these three essentials can lay a foundational for good mental health. They’re so simple they’re often overlooked, making it even more important to learn about what they are and how they can support your mental health.

1. Something to do

Having something to do sure looks different during a pandemic. It seemed like our usual establishments were reopening and that life was about to go back to normal, but a massive surge in COVID-19 cases has made a return to quarantine seem eminent. In some places, it has already begun. What do you do when “doing something” requires social distancing and staying at home whenever possible?

Stop making a list of chores and cleaning projects. Mundane tasks will not help you get through this. Whatever it is, your “something to do” must bring you joy, make you feel skilled, and make you feel valued. Put differently, you need to feel like you have a purpose.

For me, feeling skilled and valued requires that I can measure my progress, share my accomplishment with others, and get positive feedback.

Sharing and getting feedback on your accomplishments is certainly more difficult during the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s possible with technology and a little creativity. For example, when taking classes online, either as part of a degree or on a fun application like outschool, you will be able to measure your progress in the course and your instructor will give you feedback. Share your accomplishment on social media or by telling a friend or loved one if you need even more positive feedback.

#1: Something to Do = Purpose

— Progress toward your purpose must be measurable

— Share your purpose with others

— Get positive feedback

Often, working toward a goal is exactly what I need, which brings me to the second of the three essentials for good mental health during the pandemic.

2. Something to look forward to

Okay, so this admittedly looks pretty different right now. We don’t have vacations, concerts, or sporting events to look forward to, and there are a lot of unknowns — unknowns about when the pandemic is going to end, how it’s going to end, if the bills will get paid, and whether or not we will contract COVID-19 before it ends. Not only does it cause a lot of anxiety, having so many unknowns makes it difficult to plan for the future.

Because of all this uncertainty and stress, the small things must become the focal point when we think about what we can look forward to. Meeting a goal that I’ve been working towards is something that I look forward to, but it could also include:

  1. Something new — It’s exciting to try something new! It provides a break from the monotony of quarantine, which has become unbearable for so many. It can also take your mind off the coronavirus pandemic. Learn a new language online, take virtual tours of museums around the world, or embark on that online education you’ve been thinking about for a while. There’s no better time than now to learn. Cook or experiment with new recipes. You could even start your own blog or YouTube channel to share your opinions, hobbies, or pets. Whatever you choose, learning, or creating something new will give you something different to think about and provide a welcome break from the stress of our current circumstances.
  2. Something social — you don’t have to be an extrovert to crave social activities. Although extroverts crave it more, we humans are all social creatures to some extent. As social media and technology have encompassed a growing portion of our lives, many have despised it. But right now, social media can help you connect with others. Use technology and social media to satisfy as much of your social connection requirements as possible. Schedule virtual calls regularly with family and friends so you have the social interactions to look forward to, or do it the old fashioned way and call someone on the phone. It’s important to connect with others each day, especially if you’re an extrovert.
  3. Something outside — staying inside all day, every day is just not good for mental health. Research on how COVID-19 is spread shows that outdoor activities are safer than gathering indoors. Take advantage while the weather is nice — make your backyard your dining room, plant a garden, take a walk, go camping, or explore new hiking trails. Whatever you choose, get some fresh air and exercise. Just be sure to follow the guidelines to keep yourself and others safe.
  4. Something active — this can easily be combined with something outside in walks, runs, or hikes. Walking your dog counts, too. But if that’s not your thing, doing an exercise video can also provide a great workout. There are thousands of videos on YouTube, multiple subscription services (like Les Mills and Beach Body), or you could find a virtual workout group for a more in-person feeling. This article lists several yoga and fitness classes you can take online for free, many of them streaming live (for those of you that need to feel like you’re there “in the flesh”).
  5. Something relaxing — there’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has caused a constant feeling of stress. Whether you’re still going to work each day, out of work, or at home being supermom, you still need to take the time to relax and nurture yourself each day. Everyone does, especially right now. So, watch a tv series. Read a book. Take a bubble bath. Meditate. Birdwatch. Write in a journal. Color in an adult coloring book or try your hand at painting. Sew, if you can (I hear masks are in demand right now). Whatever you choose, just make sure you turn off the news and do something to decompress each day.

#2: Something to look forward to

— try something new

— connect with others

— get outside

— exercise

— relax

3. Someone to love

The first two essentials — something to do and something to look forward to — need to be fulfilled first so the “someone to love” is not expected to satisfy all three requirements. It’s like putting on your oxygen mask before helping others with theirs. Your emotional well must be full before you can give water to someone else.

That said, “someone to love” doesn’t have to be a significant other or family member, nor does it have to be a single person. It can be a higher power — spirituality fills this role or part of it for a lot of people. It can also be a pet, animals at a rescue that you foster, friends, and neighbors that you call to check on, or even strangers that you volunteer to help. Donating and volunteering is showing love.

3 Essentials for Good Mental Health During the Coronavirus Pandemic:

#1: Something to Do

#2: Something to Look Forward to

#3: Someone to Love

Making sure you have something to do, something to look forward to and someone to love is not a cure-all. These three things won’t correct a mood disorder caused by a nutrient deficiency, chemical imbalance, or genetics. They won’t magically make the lasting effects of trauma go away and they won’t alleviate financial concerns.

What these three essentials will do is satisfy a lot of your emotional needs and provide a distraction from these incredibly stressful circumstances. They have certainly helped me improve my mental health during the coronavirus pandemic. I hope they help you, too!

What has helped you get through 2020 so far? Share what has helped your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic in the comments below.

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Musings on the road to a healthier life

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Laura Duffy

Laura Duffy

Graduate student. Food blogger. Nutritionist. Busy mom. Spreading hope by sharing all I’ve learned throughout my lifelong journey with depression & anxiety.

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