Concerts, festivals, bingo nights, movie showings and a host of other normal activities have been knocked off the calendar by COVID-19 and its related distancing precautions.
A local psychologist said the pandemic’s disruptive effects can negatively affect mental health.
“So many things that used to sustain people we just can’t do right now,” said Alec Anderson, a psychologist at Medical Associates Clinic. “We have more stressors and fewer coping mechanisms.”
Nutritious eating, physical exercise, limiting time spent staring at screens and getting enough sleep have all been shown to improve mood.
“There are well-established connections between healthy lifestyle choices and brain health,” Anderson said. “From young children to older adults, that’s a consistent finding. Exercise, diet and good sleep help maintain brain health and physical health altogether. Having those protective factors is an important thing.”
One of the challenges posed by the pandemic is that rising anxiety levels can dovetail into trouble sleeping and less-healthy eating habits — lifestyle choices Anderson terms “vulnerabilities” because they can contribute to poor mental and physical health.
“It becomes a perpetual cycle,” Anderson said. “We are living in a time when our protective factors are being impacted and the vulnerabilities are piling up.”
Jacob Meyer, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, said the pandemic that has kept people from their normal socialization activities also increased the time spent staring at smartphone and computer screens.
“Those screens get in the way of many things,” Meyer said. “Workplace environments have shifted so much more online.”
Increased screen time often leads to more prolonged time spent being sedentary.
Meyer is the lead author of a study published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that found that light physical activity and sleep improved mood compared with prolonged time spent in sedentary inaction.
“Data has shown that people who were able to maintain or increase light physical activity had much better mental health,” Meyer said. “The people whose screen time was up above eight hours a day had much worse mental health in many ways.”
Anderson and Meyer agree that even taking relatively simple steps can limit sedentary behavior and screen time and boost mood.
“Self-care is meant to be an intentional process. We need to ask ourselves, ‘How am I going to do things to take care of myself this week?’” Anderson said. “It takes being a little creative.”
Meyer suggests people who are stuck working from home during the pandemic can use simple strategies to boost their activity levels.
“Think about sneaking physical activity into something that you’re already doing,” he said. “If I know I have a phone call for work, why don’t I walk around the neighborhood while I’m on that phone call?”
Meyer said focusing one’s awareness on the present moment — also known as mindfulness — can help interrupt prolonged lapses into sedentary behavior.
“Being a little more present in the moment can force people to do something active,” he said.
Meyer said examples can include stretching, walking and performing normally seated activities while standing, such as standing and doing computer work or while viewing TV.
“Folding the laundry and putting away the dishes that have piled up can break up prolonged screen time and might even lead to more physical activity after those activities are done,” Meyer said.
Anderson suggests getting outside to help improve mental health.
“I’ve seen studies indicating nature walks as being as effective as some anti-depressant medications in improving mood,” he said.