How COVID-19 Changes Our Understanding of Mental Health

In the early months of 2020, city after city, country after country, began to lock down; businesses were closed, schools shut down, and public events canceled. As each of us began an undefined quarantine, all of us were asked to drastically change our lives, often isolating us from critical support networks like close family and friends. Regardless of our level of privilege or security, we all took immediate and damaging hits to our psyche. There was so much fear in the unknown; even the experts had limited information on how the virus was transmitted, what the symptoms were, how to treat patients, and what interventions were most effective.

Our bodies physically responded to COVID-19 the same way we respond to any immediate threat, like an earthquake or flood: We went into survival mode. This adaptive response is beneficial in the short run, as the sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses in our bodies prepare us to face the unknown.

But though survival mode may be useful in a car accident or a weekend encounter with a bear, it has a wealth of ill effects in a situation where we stay in survival mode for too long. Persistent adrenaline surges damage blood vessels and arteries, increase our blood pressure, and raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes. When that extra adrenalin and energy isn’t used up in fight or flight, we’re left nervous, jittery, and with a general sense of anxiety that is near impossible to shake. It also leads to insomnia or trouble sleeping, which, in turn, has its own far-reaching impact on our mental health.

Beyond the clinical impact of the disease, the most immediate effect the pandemic has had on all of us, no matter what our background, is the toll it has taken on our mental health. As the pandemic progressed, we were able to quantify anecdotal evidence of increasing mental health conditions with data. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic, a dramatic increase from the 1 in 10 figure reported from January to June 2019.

Read the full article on Psychology Today.

Originally published on June 28, 2021   

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.