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UTHealth experts give mental health tips to cope with pandemic stressors

Two images of people doing mentally-healthy thing. A character on the left is watering plants, while the one on the right is reading a book in a window.
Experts suggest taking some quarantine time to learn a new skill, like speaking a new language, learning to play an instrument, or increasing cooking and baking skills, for example. (Photo by Getty Images)

The stress and isolation of quarantine and the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly affected the public’s mental health, but there are coping strategies to help get through the difficult times.

“As the pandemic has changed our daily lives around the world, isolation and uncertainty about the future has led to a rise in anxiety, depression, and substance abuse across our nation,” said Jair C. Soares, MD, PhD, professor and chair of the Louis A. Faillace, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). He is also on faculty with MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and serves as executive director of UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center.

“In these extraordinary times, behavioral health care has become more important and more accessible through telemedicine than ever before,” said Soares, who is the Pat R. Rutherford Chair in Psychiatry.

The tenets of maintaining good mental health remain unchanged, but COVID-19 made them more difficult to actualize in daily life. The key to success is flexibility, said Bobby Nix, MD, associate professor and vice chair for clinical affairs in the department, in the Oct. 1 UTHealth Live webinar “New challenges, new treatment options: Advancing behavioral health during the pandemic.”

Key strategies for coping during COVID-19

  • Develop a healthy sleep routine
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat healthy and limit alcohol and caffeine
  • Balance work-home life
  • Practice yoga, mindfulness, or meditation
  • Socialize with friends and family
  • Embrace hobbies

“We are going to recommend the same coping mechanisms that we would prior to COVID-19 – the big difference is in how you execute those coping mechanisms,” said Nix, who also serves as the director of UT Physicians Behavioral Health Outpatient Services.

The “big three”: Sleep, exercise, diet

Nix said sleep is important for all aspects of mental health. Our brains and bodies repair themselves while we sleep. A poor sleep schedule is linked to weakened immune systems and a rise in anxiety and depression and other disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In patients with mental health issues, sleep was one of the first behaviors affected by the pandemic as people started staying up late and sleeping in.

“We encourage patients to maintain a healthy sleep routine, to continue to go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each day, whether you have something to do or not,” he said. “Even if you are not going into work, getting up at the same time and maintaining a good sleep cycle will help significantly.”

Another heavy hitter is exercise. Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function, according to an article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal, according to the article.

Nix said this coping strategy proved difficult for some as gyms closed and home exercise equipment disappeared from warehouses during the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, many were also afraid to go to parks, which saw an influx of people.

“I encourage people to do what they can,” he said. “Do pushups, situps, or planks. There are a lot of different exercises you can do – even cardio exercises like jumping jacks. If it’s something you can do in your house and maintain the habit of exercising, we encouraging it. It’s just a matter of adapting.”

The third of the big three is diet. The saying “You are what you eat” is a cliché for a reason – the nutrients you take in affect how your body can handle stressors, your immune response, and mental health, according to Mental Health America.

Eating healthy was particularly difficult as grocery store shelves cleared out at the beginning of the pandemic. Nix said psychiatrists have seen a dramatic increase in weight gain of 15 to 20 pounds during the pandemic, fueled by unhealthy eating and stress eating. Nix said others have used quarantine as a time to pick up new cooking skills, like baking.

“There’s a lot of free cooking channels that have popped up online where people have taken that extra time they have in the house and focused some of it on meals and making healthier options cooked at home,” he said.” I encourage my patients to try to do that as well if they have the resources, and as always, we encourage limiting alcohol and caffeine. We’ve seen an increase of people consuming more alcohol and caffeine during stressful times, and work to remind people to try and limit it to healthier amount.”

Work-life balance

Balancing work and family responsibilities has never been an easy task, even before COVID-19, but the pandemic brought new challenges as employees began working from home. Some families faced the additional challenge of facilitating distance learning for their children while also maintaining work responsibilities.

“If you can, leave your work at work and spend quality time with your family at home,” Nix said. “We want a good delineation, separation, so that you can do that.”

For many during the pandemic, work and home time merged. Nix said it’s important to try to create separation where you can.

“If you can, designate a space where you conduct all of your work at. Keep that space just for your work. Try not to do anything else there, and that way you can have the rest of the house for your family,” he said. “Work with your spouse, partner, or whoever is in the house with you, and designate times. ‘This is the time I’m going to focus at work, and these are the times I’ll be home with the family.’”

Other coping strategies

Another helpful tactic is to embrace yoga, mindfulness, or meditation, Nix said. These practices can be honed at home, and there are plenty of videos and tutorials available on the internet.

Socializing with family and friends is another way to improve mental health. Nix said people have adapted how they spend their time socially, whether through digital video meeting platforms or through physically distanced interactions outdoors. Socializing can quell loneliness, and it has been shown to sharpen memory and cognitive skills. Socializing and being connected to others also increases happiness and well-being.

Finally, embrace a hobby or find a new one.

“Many people spend a lot of time watching the news, which can be stressful, or watching movies and TV shows online,” Nix said. “That’s fine in moderation, but you also need to embrace hobbies.”

Take some quarantine time to learn a new skill, like speaking a new language, learning to play an instrument, or increasing cooking and baking skills, for example.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Soares said in an article promoting the importance of self-care. “In order to sustain the marathon pace, we all must know when to slow down, when to take time for self-care, and when to call in the support team. If and when you need us, our counseling resources will be here to help.”

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