Dealing with Mental Illness During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Here are some tips if “stay at home” orders are disrupting your positive coping tools.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is an objectively stressful time that can provoke feelings of fear, loneliness, and despair for anyone. If you were already dealing with a mental illness before the pandemic, you might now be noticing an uptick in your symptoms.

Dealing with symptoms of mental illness can be tough on a good day. The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event, and you should not feel guilty if your feelings of depression or anxiety have ramped up or returned. It’s a completely natural response.

In addition to fears about your health or that of your loved ones, the spike in symptoms may be the result of your life being flipped upside down. “Many people with mental health disorders, including those struggling with substance use disorders, become increasingly symptomatic during times when they are unable to manage environmental stressors,” says Lauren Gorog, PsyD, psychologist specializing in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy at Gorog Health in Denver, CO.

“When our relationship to our environment changes and we are no longer able to engage in the same habits, routines, or strategies to manage our perceived stress, people particularly vulnerable to depression or anxiety are likely to be triggered in ways they might otherwise be able to avoid,” says Dr. Gorog.

One clear way that you might be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is a disruption in your coping mechanisms. For example, maybe you felt like your mental illness was improving thanks to a support group you’ve been attending, or a gym routine you’ve built. With gyms closing and gatherings prohibited in many cities and states, you might feel like you’ve lost your coping mechanisms.

With those positive tools missing from your toolbox, your old and unhealthy coping mechanisms may seem especially alluring. You might feel tempted to engage in things like substance use, sex addictions, online shopping, or disordered eating behaviors.

“Almost any behavior can be used as an unhealthy coping strategy,” says Dr. Gorog. If you’re using a behavior to avoid a responsibility or an unwanted thought or feeling, it might be a negative coping strategy for you.

Coping with Symptoms of Mental Illness

You might be tempted to think, “I can’t go to the gym or my support group right now, so I’m doomed.” These positive coping tools may feel like a loss that you want to grieve and fixate on, but consider finding “coping tool swap-outs.”

For example, if exercise is a good anxiety-reliever, consider switching your routine to include online workouts or jogs in your neighborhood. Many gyms and fitness instructors are offering free or donation-based classes during the pandemic that can help replicate the experience in the safety of your own home.

If you found a lot of relief from attending a support group, don’t underestimate the power of connecting with friends and therapists online via video chat. Additionally, consider joining trusted online support groups and forums, such as the ADAA Online Support Group by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

“If you cannot use any of your coping skills, you might want to ask yourself if your strategies are actually safety behaviors built to help you avoid rather than cope through distress,” says Dr. Gorog.

Another way to deal with your mental illness during the COVID-19 pandemic is to practice acknowledging and feeling your uncomfortable emotions. Many unhealthy coping mechanisms (whether that’s restricting food or “numbing” yourself with alcohol) are actually just ways to avoid or displace unwanted thoughts and feelings. In most cases, these unhealthy coping tools end up making things worse. (Learn more about the relationship between alcohol and anxiety here.)

As difficult as it may be to face these very unpleasant and valid fears, it’s a time to practice living through some of your anxieties—like a natural form of exposure therapy. Ideally under the guidance of a mental health professional, this is a time to normalize feelings of distress and develop strategies to prevent unhealthy responses and practice tolerance, according to Dr. Gorog.

Finally, it goes without saying to continue your mental illness treatment regimen as best as you can. This includes sticking to any prescribed medications in the recommended dose (pharmacies are “essential” businesses and should remain open), and continuing to meet with your therapist, even if it’s via video chat.

Need ideas for healthy ways to cope with COVID-19 anxiety?