COVID Could Impact Mental Health for Years to Come. Here's How to Cope

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Illustration of one woman supporting another who is in distress.
Mental health experts say the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic could be felt for some time to come. (Ponomariova_Maria/iStock)

There's hope that the coronavirus pandemic will end soon as the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations picks up in California. But we’re not out of the woods yet. The past year has already taken a toll on mental health, and it’s going to take fortitude to get through the rest of the year. Here are some tips from mental health experts on how to keep us grounded and healthy into a post-coronavirus future.

Anxious? Break It Down

At Crisis Support Services of Alameda County, the staff answers over 40,000 calls a year to their 24-hour hotline. One helpful strategy for folks feeling overwhelmed, says Executive Director Narges Zohoury Dillon, is to identify what is — and isn’t — within their control.

The key is to break down the amount of time you're looking ahead. If worrying about what might happen a month from now is giving you a sense of looming doom, try focusing instead on the next few minutes or hours. Dillon says zooming in to a smaller amount of time helps us with that "sense of overwhelm that comes with what's going to happen."

Keep Up Your Self-Care Routine

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the first shelter-in-place order, the internet was full of creative ways people were taking care of themselves. Livestream concerts, Zoom workouts and other self-care tips abounded.

Whatever worked to help you relax and take care of yourself then — whether it was yoga, adopting a pet or giving yourself a manicure — stick to that routine, says Allison Thompson, a psychologist and a clinical associate professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Thompson understands it can be hard to stay resilient over the long term, but a consistent routine helps, she says.

“I am a firm believer in self-care. For me, it's making sure that I exercise and that I cook,” she added. But she stresses that self-care looks different for each of us, so do whatever makes you feel nourished and comforted. That might include setting boundaries in your work day, staying connected to the important people in your life and asking for support from friends and family when you need it.

Don't Avoid Things, Do What Feels Safe

Maybe like me, you've avoided supermarkets during the pandemic and the idea of entering one still feels a little scary. Thompson, who specializes in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, says in a post-pandemic world we can learn from research-based treatments that work for trauma.

She says that people tend to deal with their anxiety by avoiding. "Avoidance is a wonderful short-term strategy, but an awful long-term strategy."

Thompson tells her patients to make a list of the things they've been avoiding because of trauma. Then she has them go out and do those things mindfully.

"If someone says, 'Oh, gosh, I used to love to go for hikes, but now I'm really afraid,' take the precautions you need to," she says. "Wear a mask, be socially distant from people who you don't know. But you'll probably find, 'I feel better doing this than I feel staying inside of my home and avoiding this thing that I know that I really enjoy.' "

Limit Your COVID Information to Trusted Sources

If you find yourself getting confused about the changes in the vaccine rollout or feeling fearful about new variants of the disease, sticking to a few trusted sources for coronavirus information can ease the added stress of information overload. Look to guidance from your health care provider, local county health department, California Department of Public Health or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says Dillon.

"Conflicting information results in confusion," she says. "And that's a place where anxiety thrives."

Even with these coping strategies, both Dillon and Thompson say there will be lingering mental health effects from this year, even after vaccinations become more accessible. Some people will be slow to return to public forums or crowded events, while others may feel heightened threat from even minor illness.

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And while there might be relief in getting to see friends and family in person again, even that could come with some anxiety, Thompson says. We've all had to navigate difficult conversations about exposure and risk over the past year — tensions that may persist into the future.

Ultimately, the lasting impact of the pandemic on mental health is a picture still coming into focus, especially because the economic repercussions could be felt for a long time to come. Dillon says that data on the emotional and relationship challenges after a pandemic don't exist yet. So researchers are learning what they can from other "community-wide trauma" events like natural disasters or the 2008 recession.

One thing we know: Incidents of violence increase when families are under financial stress. "So that's something that we worry about, depending on how long the economic recovery takes," says Dillon.

There is one positive mental health outcome that both Dillon and Thompson agree on: Telehealth is here to stay. Thompson says that while the technology has existed for years, the pandemic forced mental health providers online fast. Though this may open the door for more patient access, some people might be left out.

"Not every patient has a smartphone to do a video visit or has a computer and internet to do a video visit," Thompson says. "A lot of people, particularly those of color, might live in households with multiple generations and they have no privacy."

But telehealth also helps with overcoming other barriers to access, like transportation, mobility and time, Dillon says. A one-hour appointment could turn into a three-hour commitment if you don’t have a car and take public transportation.

Both mental health providers say it's important to recognize that even though life might feel more limited and boring in some ways right now, that could still be a mental health strain. We all need to be gentle with ourselves, look out for our loved ones and show empathy even after the "emergency" is over.

More Resources

Crisis Support Services of Alameda County
1-800-273-8255

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
800-273-8255

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Hotline
800-662-4357

Safe & Sound’s Parental Stress TALK Line
415-441-5437

CUAV (Community Unite Against Violence) LGBTQ+ Support
415-333-4357

Family Violence Law Center
510-208-0220

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