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Science-Backed Ways to Maintain Mental Health During a Pandemic

By Diana Licalzi, MS, RD, LDN, April 13, 2020

mental health covid-19 video chatting computer familyCOVID-19 has thrust us into a new world of isolation and uncertainty that challenges our mental health daily. However, finding support in each other can help us persist despite this unpredictable time. So, we turned to members of the InsideTracker community to find out about strategies they find particularly helpful to support their mental health. It turns out, some approaches are so powerful that researchers have been studying them for decades—and some healthcare professionals go as far as to prescribe them to their patients. We wanted to share their stories, and by doing so, provide you with some practical approaches to help you through these difficult times.

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Community and connection are proven stress and anxiety relievers

  • CEO of InsideTracker Rony Sellam focuses on daily, controllable habits and structure. But what helps him the most right now is disconnecting from tech and spending quality time with his family. As someone who observes Shabbat, Rony spends 25 hours in “an oasis of serenity” every week during which he has time to fully connect to his faith and family. “Being able to have quality time dedicated to spirituality and family really helps with balance,” commented the father of four. Observational studies show those who embrace a strong connection to religion and community also experience less stress and better mental health. Whether it’s through sharing meals with family or spending the day in contemplation, these practices are central to mitigating stress and anxiety among the world’s longest-lived people.[1] If you’re isolating with family members, carve out some quality time to dedicate entirely to them—without technology. If religion is important to you, try connecting deeper to your faith during this time.  

COVID-19 mental health

Jon Levitt, ultramarathoner and Sales Manager at InsideTracker, is also turning to his community—but doing so virtually.  Jon’s running community has always been an integral part of his life and he refuses to let self-isolation stop him from continuing to embrace those relationships. “I'm focusing on real human connection right now by scheduling FaceTime and virtual Happy Hours with friends. I’ve also really leaned into podcasting where I interview elite and pro runners and share their stories with thousands of others,” commented the host of For The Long Run podcast. Upholding our social connections during this time is crucial to maintaining both our mental and physical health. An abundance of medical research highlights the significance of social connection in relation to our mental health. Some psychiatrists even compare social connections to vitamins, prescribing them to patients in support of their health. Fortunately, experts say we can still reap the benefits of social connection through phone or video calls—a more fitting prescription during these times.[2]

 

Set a low bar for exercise—because even a little can go a long way

Dorothy Beal is relying on her "toolbox" to help her cope with this new reality. COVID-19 mental health“One of my tools is movement! I’ve committed to moving my body for at least 10 minutes a day every day,” commented the marathoner and founder of I RUN THIS BODY®️. As someone who has struggled on and off with depression and anxiety, Dorothy is prioritizing her mental health and making room for daily movement. "So far it's been helping! Moving my body makes me feel better and lifts my spirits.” 

Mountains of evidence illustrate the beneficial effects of regular exercise and movement. Physical activity can help to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress by increasing the production of endorphins in the brain.[3-6] Endorphins, often called feel-good chemicals, trigger positive feelings in the body and reduce our perception of pain. Try incorporating daily movement or exercise into your routine, even if that means just 10 minutes a day. Dorothy's strategy? “I intentionally set a low goal to help motivate me even on the days that I’ll inevitably find it hard to even will myself out of bed." 

 

Mindfulness and proper nutrition can help control stress-related eating and emotions

Jillian Greaves is a Boston-based Registered Dietitian with advanced training in integrative and functional medicine. Even though she’s now working from home, Jillian continues to carve out time to plan and prep her meals in advance. “This reduces the daily burden of thinking about what to eat, frees up mental space to focus on other things, and makes eating nourishing whole food meals more accessible." 
COVID-19 mental health
Mindful eating is a fundamental component of Jillian’s practice, and she believes it can be especially useful during this time to separate heightened emotions from our eating. “Practicing mindfulness creates spaces for tuning in with our body's hunger and fullness cues. It can also provide insight into why we might be turning to food in reaction to a specific emotion so that we can explore alternative coping mechanisms outside of food.” To learn how to apply mindful eating, read our blog on this topic.

When it comes to nutrition, Jillian recommends focusing on whole foods, especially ones rich in fiber. Fiber is particularly important right now, as it helps to keep blood sugar levels stable. “Blood sugar instability can exacerbate mood disorders, stress, and anxiety,” says Jillian. This statement was echoed in a recent study that showed a high sugar intake—which increases blood sugar levels—was positively associated with anxiety, stress, and depression.[7] A similar study demonstrated a link between fluctuations in glucose levels and increased anxiety, anger, and lower quality of life.[8] What’s the best way to keep blood sugar levels steady? Jillian advises incorporating a combination of protein, fat, veggies, and fiber-rich grains at meals consistently throughout the day. Grains rich in fiber include barley, quinoa, oats, and brown rice. 

 

Self-reflection can uncover coping strategies and improve mood

Amelia Boone, world-champion obstacle racer, has been open about her eating disorder recovery and recognizes this new environment can be incredibly challenging for those going through a similar journey. “I'm trying to use this time as introspection into what aspects of recovery I still need to work on, and where the eating disorder still has a hold on me.” COVID-19 mental healthReflection is a common approach that can be used to help cope with stressful situations. In fact, recollecting past experiences and identifying triggers of stress and anxiety can help uncover effective coping or management strategies.[9] “Sometimes, the best thing we can do is to voice what we are going through, and then give ourselves grace that it's not going to be perfect right now...It's not easy, but reframing this time as a potential positive for long-term recovery has been a useful tool!”

What’s more, research also shows that writing about difficult experiences can significantly reduce stress levels and improve mood.[10] The American Psychological Association encourages individuals to keep a diary or journal to write down thoughts and feelings—even or especially about difficult experiences. Doing so can help protect and prepare the mind from potential stressors. Lastly, Amelia recommends continuing to lean on your support system during this time. Although she’s cut off from in-person support, she’s engaging with others as much as possible through meal support video conferencing and FaceTiming with friends and family.

 

Breath work can activate the parasympathetic nervous system

  • “I know this sounds overly simple, but our breath is a powerful tool to help reduce stress,” says Iris Sokol, wellness expert and Senior Vice President of Corporate Wellness at InsideTracker. Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, has been used for years for its power in relaxing both the brain and body. When put to the test, science validates its effectiveness—in one study, participants that incorporated deep breathing into their daily lives had significantly lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and improved mental function. Deep breathing involves taking long, slow deep breaths and shifting your focus to the breath. The technique activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help slow heart rate, lower or stabilize blood pressure, and result in a more relaxed state.[11] 

How can you put this to practice? If you feel emotions of stress or anxiety, this technique can help to calm you down. It’s also very effective if you need help falling asleep, says Iris. Proper sleep is essential in supporting mental health; studies show that a good night's sleep helps to support mental and emotional resilience, while sleep deprivation can increase negative thoughts and emotions. To find out how you can improve your sleep, read our blog on the topic. Iris recommends starting by taking five rounds of deep breath. Inhale through your nose, and exhale through your mouth, focusing only on the breath. The goal is to slowly fill your lungs, causing your lower belly to rise. “Start by putting one hand on your belly and one on your heart so you can feel the breath coming in and out,” advises Iris. Taking this time can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and the benefits that come with it.

 

Practicing gratitude cultivates positive emotions

  • Charlie Engle, author of Running Man: A Memoir, battled a decade of addiction, won, and has since been 27 years sober. “COVID-19 has reminded me just how crucial my mental health habits are…When things are hard and I feel anxious, I focus entirely on effort rather than on the end result,” commented the runner.

    COVID-19 mental health

    Charlie continues to incorporate his positive mental exercises during this time by working on his running, yoga, and meditation. “I also make a gratitude list at the end of every day to remind myself that no matter how challenging the day was, I can make the choice to feel lucky.”
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  • Similar to other mental health support strategies, research on practicing gratitude is also promising. Studies consistently show that people who practice gratitude exhibit greater happiness, more positive emotions, and significantly better mental health.[12,13] 

How does showing gratitude work? Acknowledging what we’re thankful for—either in writing, thought or prayer—drives us to recognize the positive aspects of our lives, fueling positive emotions and happiness. The practice also helps to remind us that happiness partially comes from outside sources, allowing us to connect to and appreciate other people, nature, or a higher power. Lastly, Charlie reminds us that we aren't facing these new challenges alone. He makes a great effort to share his struggles publicly to show others that "we're all in this together."

 

A recap of recommendations to maintain mental health during social isolation

  • Carve out time to fully connect with your family and/or faith. Catch up with friends through virtual meetings or phone calls. 
  • Get active—even if that means incorporating just 10 minutes of daily movement. 
  • Practice mindfulness to help you separate emotions from food, and focus on fiber-rich foods to keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. 
    • Purposely reflect on past or present stressful experiences. Try jotting them down in a diary or journal. 
    • Incorporate deep breathing to counteract stressful or anxious feelings. 
    • Practice gratitude through writing, thought, or prayer. 
    • Seek professional help if you or a loved one are experiencing any of these warning signs

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Diana Licalzi, MS, RD 
  • Diana is a Content Strategist and Team Nutritionist at InsideTracker. As a Registered Dietitian and self-proclaimed "biohacker," Diana enjoys researching and testing the latest trends and technology in the field of nutrition and aging. You'll often find Diana completing a 24-hour fast, conducting self experiments, or uncovering strategies to increase longevity. Follow her on Instagram at @dietitian.diana.
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Resources

[1] Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People. National Geographic Society, 2015.

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6125010/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30334597

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24813261

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25739893

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28751637 - blood sugar

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22324383

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4228543/

[10] https://www.apa.org/research/action/writing

[11] Jerath, Ravinder & Edry, John & Barnes, Vernon & Jerath, Vandna. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical hypotheses. 67. 566-71. 10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.042. 

[12] https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier

[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27139595