COVID-19: Mental health and well-being for ourselves and our children

Three Berkeley psychologists take questions about how to cope with the emotional side effects of COVID-19. (UC Berkeley video)

The intense social isolation, stress and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 is shaping up to be its own mental health pandemic. Already, spikes in post-traumatic stress disorder are being documented among vulnerable populations, health workers and other front-line personnel.

In the latest in a series of Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19 live webcasts, UC Berkeley psychologists Dacher Keltner, Sonia Bishop and Frank Worrell offered advice on how to tackle COVID-19 stress, based on their specific areas of research, mental health data and proven therapeutic interventions.

While Bishop noted that it’s too early to predict what will be the long-term psychological effects of COVID-19, she outlined how anxiety can escalate when there are so many unknowns.

“Before there were stay-at-home orders, quite a lot of people were not necessarily feeling that anxious — maybe not taking it that seriously,” said Bishop, an associate professor of psychology and an expert on the cognitive neuroscience of anxiety.

But now, she added, “many more people are seeing people who are like them, and are getting ill,” and she mentioned recent surveys showing that six out of 10 adults are reporting anxiety.

In light of that, Bishop said, “we need to find things to help us relax, and be gentle to ourselves … and maybe not watch the news too much … and definitely keep exercising and eating healthy.”

Worrell, a professor of school psychology in the Graduate School of Education, warned that the anxiety parents show takes a toll on their offspring. This is especially critical for children in the upper elementary grades who, unlike toddlers, are aware of the dangers of the pandemic but, unlike teenagers, feel more dependent on grown-ups, and may need more structure.

“Having a check-in with children at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, and setting up a bedtime routine that allows them to go to bed in a happy and calm frame of mind, can make difference,” Worrell said.

One helpful activity, he said, is for parents and children to reminisce together about the happier moments in their lives.

Keltner, a professor of psychology and co-founder of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, emphasized that chronic stress plays havoc not just on mental health, but on our immune systems, making us less resilient overall.

He noted that people of color and low-income people are being hit hard by the pandemic, throwing into sharp relief racial divisions and income inequality.

“This pandemic is revealing the things we need to work on as a culture,” Keltner said.

As for strategies to calm ourselves, Keltner referenced research showing that anything that inspires awe, whether it’s nature, art, playing music or other creative endeavors, reduces stress and inflammation.

“I think we really have to up our game in building a set of (mindfulness and gratitude) practices,” Keltner said. “It’s an ideal time and way to handle this chronic anxiety.”

LINKS TO RESOURCES:

Greater Good Science Center

Sonia Bishop’s Computational Psychiatry and Affective Cognitive Neuroscience Lab

Graduate School of Education mental health resources

Calm amid Covid – a video series in which Keltner shares science-based strategies to help people cope with the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19.