By: Christabel Lobo
With the daily number of COVID-19 cases continuing to rise throughout the United States and around the world, it’s easy to get inundated with the news about how fast this coronavirus outbreak is spreading. From the real-time updates on social media and constant media coverage via news channels to instant messages from friends and conversations with family, there’s no escaping hearing about COVID-19.
And, unfortunately, that can end up being a problem for some.
According to practicing psychotherapist Annie Miller, MSW, LCSW-C, LICSW, an information overload, especially when it’s bad news, leads you down a downward spiral of negativity. “Information is too much when it contributes to the development of stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD and other symptoms,” she says. “Consistent exposure to negative, alarming, or difficult information can be overwhelming for many of us and create a chronic stress response. We can also feel a sense of disaster fatigue and become desensitized to the overload of information.”
What Happens to Your Body When You’re Mentally Exhausted during COVID-19
For some, the feelings of mental exhaustion brought on by the emotional toll of round-the-clock news coverage of COVID-19 can be very similar to the feelings you experience during a traumatic incident. Dr. Renee A. Exelbert, a licensed psychologist, explains that more often than not, the symptoms include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feelings of helplessness
- Depressed mood
- Difficulty coping
- Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
“Bodily pain or illness can also occur, as individuals may manifest their emotional feelings through physical symptoms, or experience lowered immunity due to stress,” she says. “With particular regard to COVID-19, individuals with pre-existing mental health issues may have heightened difficulties.” Say, for example, that you’ve been previously diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the constant news coverage of COVID-19 may lead to a worsening of systems because steps to decrease the spread of infection include ritualized behaviors like handwashing and preventing the spread of germs.
“Reading or watching the news can activate the sympathetic nervous system and cause us to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline,” Miller says. When you experience too much mental exhaustion, she explains, the body’s response is to release adrenaline, your fight or flight hormone. As a result, you enter crisis mode as your body begins to respond by an increased heart rate, alertness, and more.
However, if this continually happens, negative symptoms may arise. “The most common symptoms are anxiety, depression, fatigue and trouble sleeping,” Miller says. “Many people may also experience physical symptoms, such as an increase in pain or gastrointestinal problems.”
Practical Solutions to Prevent Mental Exhaustion and Panic During COVID-19
If you’re experiencing symptoms of mental exhaustion, it’s best to decrease or altogether stop your consumption of COVID-19’s round-the-clock news coverage. “I am advising my clients to keep both their news and social media scrolling to under 30 minutes per day,” says online psychotherapist Haley Neidich, LCSW. “In fact, some of my very anxious clients who struggle with panic disorder symptoms are consuming no news at all, and have a loved one who is “summarizing the day” for them via text message in order to manage their symptoms.”
Finding your breath in times of stress and emotional toll can be highly therapeutic. “The first step is to stop those worrying thoughts by taking three deep breaths,” says psychologist and pediatric mental health expert, Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. “A 5-7-8 breath helps you calm your brain and body down.” Take a deep breath for a count of five, hold your breath for a count of seven, and exhale for a count to eight. Dr. Capanna-Hodge recommends doing this three times in a session, and multiple times throughout the day.
Dr. Exelbert recommends engaging in activities that positive emotions and give you a sense of purpose such as donating blood, raising money, or supporting small businesses in your neighborhood, teaching an online course, or finding ways to volunteer your time. In addition, Dr. Exelbert recommends that you need to:
- Exercise—find an online program or app to follow
- Eat healthily
- Stick to good sleeping habits—make sure you put away electronics at least an hour before bedtime
- Engage in self-care with deep breathing and meditation
Sticking to a daily routine while you’re social distancing can have a significant impact on your health and well-being. “Make a schedule that is stabilizing and adhere to it, as it will give you a greater sense of control,” Dr. Exelbert says.
If you’re unable to speak to your therapist in person due to social distancing, many therapists like Neidich are offering online sessions. “TalkSpace and BetterHelp are two of the most reputable online therapy services and are more affordable than traditional therapy,” she says.
Using apps like Calm or Insight Timer, which are easy to use, has made meditation more accessible to people. Some like progressive relaxation meditation, “guided you to relax each part of your body, and calm your inner chatter that often feeds stress and worry into your thoughts,” Dr. Capanna-Hodge says of an especially important technique to practice when you’re feeling overwhelmed from the constant COVID-19 coverage.