Recent studies show that rates of depression and anxiety are three to four times higher than before the pandemic began. No one is immune to the stress of COVID-19 and the uncertainty surrounding it. “It would be unusual if you didn’t experience pangs of anxiety and depression during these traumatic and unprecedented times,” says YPO member and Founder and President of Happier Living, Dr. Lawrence Genen.

For many years, there has been a stigma around mental health, that it is “just in your head” so you don’t need to worry about it. But fortunately, that attitude is changing, says Genen. People are starting to understand the importance of prioritizing mental well-being. “A greater emphasis on mental health is a path toward changing the world for the better,” he says.

With all of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, there is no better time than now to start therapy, says Genen. But even without a therapist, there are still a number of ways to reduce the stress and anxiety we are all feeling.

Connect more

Even before the pandemic, particularly among older people in the United States, there was an epidemic of loneliness and isolation, says Genen. Now, almost overnight, the pandemic shifted us all into a degree of isolation and only magnified the loneliness many of us were feeling.

One way to counteract that isolation and loneliness is to stay connected with people we care about, he says. An easy way to do this is by making it a priority to schedule regular Zoom calls or phone calls.

Genen cautions against feeling disheartened or wronged if you haven’t heard from someone in a while. When people are experiencing anxiety or depression and not feeling great, “they tend to withdraw, they tend to be less likely to engage,” he says. “We often tend to misinterpret someone who is feeling a little depressed or anxious if they’re not engaging.” But maybe they, too, are struggling, and that is why they are not reaching out.

Think about the people who matter to you, whom you care about, and make an effort to connect and not worry too much about whether you’ve heard from them. “So, you sent them a text message and never heard back. That’s too easy of an excuse to let a relationship fade away,” says Genen.

Get outside, get active – and sleep

It is important to safely find some space to go outside. To whatever degree you can, do something for your body, says Genen. “Get it moving, get your heartrate going, get a sweat on, and try to stay physically active,” he says. “Anything people can do to stay physically active will make a big difference for their overall outlook and how they are feeling.”

Closely related to physical activity is getting enough quality sleep. “Ensuring that you’re getting really good sleep and feeling rested is key,” Genen explains. In the past, we focused on treating the symptoms of depression and anxiety with the idea that accompanying sleep disturbances would go away once we started feeling better. “But now we know that sleep itself, the quality of sleep, it’s important to think of it as its own vital sign,” he continues. Our pandemic-fueled love affair with TV streaming and late-night TV binging isn’t helping our sleep. The key is to get some rest — both for your body and mind.

Educate Yourself to Reduce Anxiety

In “normal” times, anxiety is a fight or flight response triggered even though there is no credible threat to our survival. But, during the pandemic, we are being told that there is a credible threat: a deadly virus that is circulating and we must take pretty extreme measures that represent a significant disruption to our lives compared to how we were living. So, it is no surprise people feel stressed or anxious. “I think it’s important that people understand what they are experiencing is actually quite normal,” says Genen. “What people are realizing is it’s their fight-or-flight response because we’ve been told here’s this threat, here’s this virus.”

Anything people can do to educate themselves and decrease the ambiguity, that will go a long way to lowering that fight-or-flight response. ”
— Dr. Lawrence Genen, Founder & President Happier Living share twitter

One of the hardest parts of the virus is the not knowing. “Jet fuel for anxiety is ambiguity,” says Genen. Something that could go a long way to making people feel more relaxed and to lower that fight or flight response related to the pandemic is getting educated about COVID-19. What is it? What’s the best way I can keep myself safe? Who is most at risk? Now that vaccines are out, how and when can I get a vaccine.

“Anything people can do to inform themselves and educate themselves and decrease the ambiguity, that will go a long way to lowering that fight-or-flight response,” he adds.

Adopt and Perform a “PERFIC” Exercise

Often when people feel overwhelmed, it is because one particular facet of their life is out of balance, explains Genen. He finds that many of his hard-charging, successful clients may be very good at setting goals for their professional lives but don’t give their personal lives that same level of care. “During the pandemic, they’re not applying the same tools that they leverage in their professional lives in their personal lives,” he says. “When it comes to their careers, most people are setting goals for themselves. For example, ‘These are the goals I had. How well did I do compared to the goals I set?’”

But why limit this just to work? “You can do those same things in other areas of your life,” he says. One way to do this by using simple goal-setting exercises to take stock of where you are and where you want to be. For example, Genen has developed an exercise called the P.E.R.Fi.C. System, which allows you to examine different facets of your life. These include physical health, emotional health, relationships, financial health, and your career/passion. Make a list of each category and give yourself an A-F grade. “Unless you’ve given yourself an “A,” you identify what an “A” would look like,” he says. And then you work toward that goal. As you move forward and work through your goals, it’s important to revisit and revise as time passes.

Doing exercises like this can help you decide what you want your relationships to look like, both at work and at home, says Genen. Our effort to change behavior or habits is enhanced when we feel a sense of accountability, so think about trying it with others. “Sharing P.E.R.Fi.C. with friends, family and partners can be beneficial as it helps provide accountability and can enhance relationships by providing those you care about insight into what constitutes happiness for you,” says Genen. 

So, while we can’t make the pandemic disappear, we can actively work to keep its negative effects on our mental health as minimal as possible by maintaining relationships, staying active, getting good sleep, and envisioning what we want our lives to look like post-pandemic.