COVID-19 & mental health: 5 signs of concern & tips for coping

Anxiety is at a high for many Tennesseans. Whether you’re struggling with working remotely, homeschooling or mounting unpaid bills, uncertainty is a fact of life, and that creates an unending flow of stress.

“When news of the coronavirus came out, people were scared,” says Dr. Judith Overton, a psychiatrist and medical director for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Now that we’ve had some time to make adjustments, we’re facing a new kind of stress in trying to decide how much risk we want to accept in getting out.”

Now, people may be wondering about a variety of issues, like how to balance their return to work or find a new job, safety concerns and financial stress, all while still feeling socially isolated, says Dr. Overton.

“The disruption to our routines has been huge,” she says, “and it will take time to navigate each change that comes.”

5 signs of mental health struggle

“The biggest indicator that there’s a problem is when you feel yourself really struggling to get through the day,” says Dr. Overton. “Even passing thoughts about wishing you weren’t here or that you didn’t have to go on should raise your awareness.”

Symptomatically, these feelings can show up as:

  1. Major disruptions in sleep
  2. Significant changes in your weight (up or down)
  3. Mood irregularities that affect others, which in turn make you feel bad about yourself
  4. Increases in substance use (cannabis, alcohol)
  5. Intense feelings of anxiety, hopelessness and despair

Older adults and children

There are also specific symptoms to look out for in seniors and children.

“One of the ways the elderly express depression and stress is psychosomatically, meaning you have a physical symptom that’s intensified by your mental state,” says Dr. Overton. “Headaches, back pain, indigestion — all can flare up if you aren’t comfortable talking about your emotions.”

For young children, the signs of distress are typically more straightforward — increased irritability, recurring nightmares, acting out in bursts of frustration. Most are completely normal reactions, but there is one thing parents can be mindful of in the COVID-19 climate.

“We need to be careful of overexposing young children to harsh realities,” says Dr. Overton. “It’s one thing to say, ‘In order to be safe, we need to do this;’ It’s another for them to constantly overhear news of people dying. Children need a sense of security, and we need to give them the information that’s appropriate for their maturity level.”

If you or someone you love has experienced the symptoms above, consider seeking help. You can contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness via phone, email or text:

5 ways to maintain mental health while social distancing

If you’re not struggling with serious symptoms but want to improve your mental health, Dr. Overton suggests these 5 things.

1. Exercise outdoors.

“Now that the weather is nice, getting out and exercising will help the entire family, no matter your age. It can be as simple as walking or riding your bike.”

2. Wind down with apps.

“There are many apps available to help people relax or meditate, and there are also podcasts specifically designed to help you de-stress.”

3. Express gratitude.

Studies show that gratitude makes people happy and helps get them through difficult times. Try writing down or saying one thing you’re grateful for each day.”

4. Help others.

“Giving back gives us a sense of togetherness and belonging. Look at what you can give — time, resources, finances, expertise — and focus on doing that.”

5. Don’t stop reaching out.

“Keep getting on the phone with friends and checking in on family, and especially isolated populations like seniors. Social distancing is our new reality, so just keep asking how people are doing. You’ll be surprised how meaningful it can be — to them and to you.”

In addition, BlueCross members who don’t want to go to a provider’s office can access via telehealth as part of their coverage.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.