Mental Health: A Neglected Pandemic

You know that feeling when you’re just about to sneeze? It’s like this twilight zone of existence. That momentary disorientation when your body refuses to function until you experience that dreadful, disgusting satisfaction. And when you do finally sneeze? Snot everywhere.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt like that a lot lately. It has nothing to do with my seasonal allergies and everything to do with seasonal depression. Replace that sneeze with an anxiety attack. And replace snot with a complete mental breakdown.

A photo of scrabble words assembled to spell uploaded to Pixabay by Wokandapix, but credit/attribution not required.

Like 30% of the people who will read this article, I have battled with anxiety since I was a teenager. The pandemic hasn’t exactly helped. My finances have been tight ever since I decided to take a semester off from bartending for fear of getting sick. My classes are all online, which isn’t an ideal learning experience. I can’t see my best friend because she has underlying health conditions. And yet, I know that I have to do my part by wearing a mask and social distancing. While I sacrifice the experiences that characterize college life for the sake of ending this pandemic, I see others on social media blatantly disregard the public health crisis. And I don’t know if I can handle that for much longer.

Pandemic aside, we are at the onset of seasonal depression. The sun hides below the horizon a little longer every night. It’s getting too cold for socially distanced outdoor activities with friends. Soon, we will hole up in our respective dorms, homes, and apartments as the raging winds and blustering blizzards turn campus into a frozen world of white. 

Seasonal depression, COVID-19 anxiety, and pandemic loneliness are a triple threat – the trifecta of mental illness. Right now, we are paying extra attention into taking care of our physical bodies. Please don’t forget that your mental health is just as important as your physical health. 

Why? Mental and physical health go hand-in-hand. Physical activity can improve your state-of-mind. And mental health manifests itself in physical ways. For example, our immune systems weaken when we don’t get sufficient sleep, making us even more susceptible to the flu and COVID-19. Anxiety influences your ability to concentrate, making those little distractions that come with studying from home even more difficult to ignore. Stress changes diets, causes headaches, hinders digestion, and weighs down your body with fatigue. 

And so, let me give you this kind reminder: take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Pay special attention to your sources of happiness and relaxation. I’ve been working on myself, trying to find ways to reduce the ever-building anxiety and prevent the headaches sparked by stressful classes. I’ve compiled a list – a list of things that have helped me. I can’t promise everything on this list will work for you, but it’s worth a try. Your mental health is worth everything. 

Woman with curly hair waving and saying hi to someone through her laptop. Photo by Yan from Pexels

Stay connected.

Right now, we can’t see everyone. It’s unfortunate. It sucks. But it’s important. Social distancing is important. Even so, that doesn’t mean you have to live under a rock this winter. In fact, maintaining some sort of social circle is crucial to your mental health. People are important. They comprise our support systems, and a strong support system is key to a healthy mind

Stay up to date on social media. When I need a good laugh, I watch TikTok compilations on YouTube. Start some streaks on Snapchat with people you haven’t been able to see recently. How have they been doing? Maybe their mental health has been struggling just as much as yours. That single “How are you?” snap could make their day.

If you’ve been trying to keep off of social media like I have, take advantage of video call platforms or a good, old-fashioned phone call. I call my sister every week. Sometimes we only chat for fifteen minutes, but the social interaction keeps us both sane. Google Hangouts, Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype are ways to stay connected and talk to people face-to-face. While video call isn’t the same as being in-person, it’s still pretty dang similar. 

Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

Meditate… and rock. 

Meditation can take many forms. It doesn’t have to be sitting with your legs crossed and saying “ohm” like the stereotype. In fact, the word ‘meditation’ comes from the Latin root ‘meditari,’ which means to think or contemplate. Meditation is really just about training your mind to clear your thoughts and focus your subconscious. The practice can be done while lying in bed, sitting in your car, even walking through the park. While results vary, I use meditation as a way to organize my thoughts when I’m feeling anxious and overwhelmed. 

I read an article the other day about an individual with severe anxiety. He said that since he was a child, he would rock to calm down. I don’t mean he threw in an ACDC CD and jammed out in his living room. He would literally rock his body: lie on his bed and slowly shake his head, touching each ear to the pillow. His hips would follow, then his shoulders, his knees, his feet. His mind would wander past the skyscrapers of his city and toward rolling hills in a land that was perpetually stuck at sunset. 

Two summers ago, I witnessed a similar technique when I was a personal care assistant for a young man with autism. When he would get nervous or scared or overwhelmed, he would freeze in place and rock backward and forward. The rhythmic movement relaxed him. 

And so, I tried it. When I felt an anxiety attack about to consume me, I laid on my bed and I rocked back and forth – starting slow but building to a moderate pace. The relief was nearly instant. My mind drifted from my stress-ridden bedroom room to a happier place full of soft sunlight and the smell of balsam pine needles.              

Art class Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash

Take a break before bed – and as you study.

It doesn’t have to be an hour. The break could be ten minutes. What you do in that time is completely up to you. You could meditate, read a book, doodle, journal. You could listen to music as you lull your mind to sleep. The point of this break isn’t to entertain or to distract. Rather, it’s to soothe. Whatever you do, don’t look at a screen; don’t watch TV or play games on your phone. Spend time away from that blue-light that can give you headaches and impede on your vital REM sleep. 

Before I go to bed, I like to listen to music and contemplate my day. I have a specific playlist that lulls my mind to sleep, and my body soon follows. I let myself walk through my day for a second time. What went well? What did I wish was different? What can I do tomorrow to make myself happier?

breakfast brunch toast granola food Tessa Pesicka / Her Campus

Look after your physical health.

But like I said before, physical and mental health go hand-in-hand. And exercise can be a fantastic way of relieving stress. Personally, I go to the gym four times a week and weightlift. My roommate, on the other hand, goes for daily walks. Although we have completely different approaches to exercise, we both have the same goal. Exercise helps us clear our minds, work off our stress, and control our focus for more efficient work later in the day. 

Exercise can take any form you want. Maybe you hate cardio - I know that I do. Look up a leg workout online and work those glutes. Maybe you love cardio but can’t stand to weightlift. Go for a run or take a stroll around campus. I feel disconnected from campus taking classes from home, so visiting campus reminds me that I’m still part of the Hawkeye community. 

Paying attention to what you put in your body is also important. Many people stress eat, splurging on salty snacks, decadent desserts, and greasy dinners. I, on the other hand, bake cookies and cakes and anything sweet. However, I know that eating baked goods every day isn’t good for my body, and I get more anxious when I eat copious amounts of sugar. Even so, I don’t stop myself from baking because it’s a great hobby that helps reduce my stress. Instead, I bake half or quarter batches of recipes, and I share the products with my friends.

Everything is fine in moderation. You can indulge, just try not to go crazy. When you find yourself reaching for the goldfish, don’t stop yourself. But instead of eating straight out of the bag, pour out a small portion and don’t go for seconds. If you’re having bad anxiety, take it easy on the caffeine, and maybe reduce your alcohol consumption. Just some food for thought…

Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

Talk to a professional.

This is by far the most challenging item on this list. It’s hard to admit that you need help beyond the scope of your friends and family. And yet, it’s important to realize that everyone can benefit from talking to a professional. Therapy and counseling can do wonders for your mental health. Yes, talking to your friends and family can help. But your friends and family probably aren’t trained professionals who can give you feedback on ways to reduce your anxiety and calm your nerves. They may not know what to say, and they might even say the wrong things. Also, getting an outside perspective can be crucial to understanding the root of your stress and the source of your mindful challenges. 

UI Counseling services are still taking appointments over video call. You can learn more and schedule an appointment here