The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental and physical health, but perhaps no group has been quite as affected as medical professionals. October 10 is World Mental Health Day, so we wanted to hear firsthand from Dr. Azizi Seixas about how he takes care of his own mental health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down and right-side up and up again. While our physical health has been most challenged, our mental health has suffered too. Why? Because while we can actively take care of and protect our bodies, we are less in control of taking care of our minds. Our minds were built to be stimulated, and being in a lockdown has led to stress, mental health issues, social isolation, burnout from wearing multiple hats at work and home, and more.
For those of us who work from home, we are suffering from Zoom fatigue. A recent study published by Microsoft showed the level of mental stress back-to-back video conference meetings have on the human brain. We are shouldering more levels of physiological and emotional stress. Personally, I am so fatigued that I feel like my mind is going to explode. My brain—our brains—are exhausted. It is believed that the pandemic will not only affect our physical health but may have adverse long-term consequences on our mental health.
Mental health impacts our physical and behavioral health.
Our brain: Mental health and well-being affect brain structure, the size and key biological processes, and function, our memory--our ability to concentrate, process information. For example, individuals with anxiety, depression, or high levels of stress have poorer cognitive functioning and are at greater risk to suffer from cognitive decline and dementia.
Our heart: Emotional pain can weigh and burden the heart. Individuals with high levels of depression, anxiety, and stress are more likely to develop heart diseases like hypertension, stiff arteries and vessels, and an elevated risk of stroke.
Our immune system: Poor mental health and well-being compromises your body’s main defense mechanism, the immune system. Having poor mental health makes you more susceptible to colds, infections, and illness.
Weight gain and loss: Poor mental health and well-being, either the presence of anxiety or depression, are linked to weight gain. Individuals who have high levels of anxiety, depression, and stress are more likely to eat unhealthy foods and starchy foods and snack at night, increasing their probability of gaining weight. Also, stress makes it harder to lose weight and keep weight off.
Risk for chronic disease: Poor mental health and well-being have been linked to asthma and other respiratory conditions, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, and skin disease, like psoriasis.
Motivation: Your mood can affect your motivation. A down mood, depression, or anxiety can skew your outlook on life and can sap your energy and thirst for life.
Exercise: Mental health affects your energy and activity levels. The relationship between mood and exercise and activity is circular, as less exercise lowers mood and low mood makes you feel enervated and less likely to be active. A 5-10 minutes’ walk or activity can increase your mental alertness.
Eat a proper diet: Poor mental health and well-being, such as depression, anxiety and stress, increases cravings for unhealthy food choices, like sugars, high carbohydrates, and snacking. Conversely, diets rich in fruits and vegetables and low processed sugars and fat can elevate mood and lead to better mental health and wellness.
Alcohol, drugs, and smoking: Individuals struggling with mental illness are more likely to engage in chain-smoking, alcohol abuse, illicit substances, and medication to self-medicate.
Sleep: Emotional distress disrupts your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep and disrupts your sleep duration and quality.
Taking care of your spirit and outlook on life. My job was very demanding pre-pandemic and has gotten worse during the pandemic. To stay sane, I have needed and used my family and friends to help me center and re-calibrate daily. Doing so helped me to deal with the stress of my job and to prioritize what means most. Also, the joy of playing with my two kids and having spontaneous dance parties in our kitchen breaks the tension of work and ill effects of the global pandemic. Outside of my family and friends, I have become more spiritual, focusing on the importance of life and what my role is in life. This provides a unique perspective on life where I no longer worry about things I cannot control.
Taking care of your body. It is said that laughter, joy, and fun are food for the soul, but feeding the soul with these also benefits the body. Starting your day with sleep and getting a good night’s rest cures all mental anguish and freshens your mind and mental health for the day. After a good night’s rest, each day, I start my day with meditation and reflection, taking deep breaths. I try to avoid digital devices, emails, and social media. It is scientifically proven that going on your device immediately after waking up from sleep quickly switches your brain from delta waves to beta waves, bypassing the very important alpha and theta waves, states where you have some of your most productive thinking and mental health. Doing so whiplashes your brain and can cause a cascade of stress throughout the day. I ensure I get my exercise each day, and I also try to ensure that I get a good “belly laugh'' each day.
We hope you now have some actionable ways to take care of your mental health. It’s great there is a day dedicated to mental health across the world, but our hope is you feel supported with resources to take care of yourself every single day.