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Coping with change and improving mental health in the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic

Forty percent of adults in the United States struggled with a mental health disorder during COVID-19, according to the CDC. Along with this increase in need, utilization of mental healthcare like digital apps and telehealth for accessing talk therapy has risen tremendously. We sat down with Verily Mental Health Lead, Dr. Danielle Schlosser to understand how people are coping in the current phase of the pandemic, and tips for managing stress.

How has COVID-19 impacted mental health in the U.S.?

It's important to note that the mental health impact of the pandemic has not been one-size-fits-all. On the one hand, we've seen huge increases in mental health needs as well as really high adoption of mental health services. Many people nationwide are dealing with grief from losing loved ones during the pandemic. There's also evidence to suggest that many people who recover from COVID-19 have long-term struggles with mental health, with one study showing that one in five COVID survivors has a mental health disorder. We're also seeing a lot more openness around talking candidly about mental health struggles.

Interestingly, on the flip side, we're also seeing some people experience "post-traumatic growth." Some are reporting positive experiences around feeling more connected to family and friends, or benefiting from reduced time spent commuting among those who are able to work from home. The mental health impact of the pandemic is nuanced, and we'll continue to see this as we hopefully shift into a new normal.

Currently in the U.S., the approach to managing the pandemic and public health guidance is changing. As vaccinations increase and many communities loosen restrictions, what can happen with people's mental health?

In the U.S., there is a sense of seeing a light at the end of the tunnel and many people are feeling excited about a return to normal in sight. By the same token, however, many people have also adapted to the pandemic over the course of the past year and we've settled into certain habits and routines. Some feel anxiety around socializing, even if they crave it. Humans are predisposed to feel stress around major life changes, and our brains like predictability. For example, getting married, having children, and graduating high school are all seen as positive events, but it takes time to adjust to the new normal.

The best way to manage this stress is to be gentle with yourself and validate your experience, realizing it's one shared by many. One technique from talk therapy is identifying and naming an experience. When you're in the midst of swirling thoughts that seem very chaotic, you may not recognize it as anxiety. In psychology, we refer to these thought patterns as "rumination." Naming these experiences isn't meant to stigmatize, but actually to gain a sense of control.

It can also be helpful to internalize that thought patterns are just thought patterns, not who you are. One technique of managing a detrimental thought pattern is to catch it, check it, and change it. This process involves being mindful and aware of when you start slipping into rumination, so you can challenge the unhelpful thought and replace it with an alternative thought.

On the preventative side, evidence shows us that physical activity, meditation and being in nature can help reduce stress. Socializing can also help, which can seem counterintuitive if you're experiencing anxiety around socializing. But this can involve connecting with a partner or family member and just getting out of your own head.

How can people cope with information overload?

Greater exposure to news can induce stress, and digital hygiene can help. If you notice your heart rate goes up when you watch the news, for instance, notice and identify that. You can stop automatic notifications on your phone from news apps in order to create more control over when and how you consume information.

How can people navigate sensitive conversations around masking and vaccination with family and friends?

This is really hard, especially given how divisive the dialogue around public health has become in the U.S. When you're having a difficult conversation about a really important public health guideline like vaccines, getting curious about the other person's feelings and what is at the heart of their perspective is a good place to start.

When a decision gets into people's value system and identity, it will not be productive and constructive to quickly criticize their point of view. One way to navigate these conversations is by sharing information so they can have the best data available to them to consider their choice. We can orient these conversations around helping people feel empowered to make these decisions, rather than controlled.

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