COVID-19 depression and anxiety: How to take care of your mental health

Stress, anxiety, hopelessness -- the emotions that defined the pandemic and how to cope with them.

Amanda Capritto
8 min read
mental health emotional health

Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health.

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To say that the past year has done a number on our collective mental health is an understatement. The coronavirus pandemic, high rates of unemployment, racial inequality and a divisive, at times hostile, political climate have driven stress way up among Americans. More than 40% of people reported having symptoms of depression and anxiety in January of 2021, compared to just 11% between January and June, 2019.

It will take months, perhaps even years, to fully heal from the trauma of 2020, but in the meantime, there are things we can all do to cope.

In order to help you get through these trying times, we've compiled our very best mental health advice -- all spliced into easy-to-digest sections on burnout, anxiety and sleep , plus the benefits of meditation, physical activity and getting outdoors. We hope this helps you navigate any mental health troubles or emotional distress you may be dealing with at this time. 

How to deal with burnout 

In 2019, the World Health Organization declared burnout an official medical diagnosis, proving that burnout is truly a problem that plagues modern workers. Most people live in a stormy sea of never-ending to-do lists that include work responsibilities, child care, social lives, romantic relationships and household duties. 

Where, then, is the time to take care of yourself? When everything else can easily and readily take priority, you have to make time to tend to your own needs. Easier said than done, I know. 


Burnout is all too common among working professionals in all industries.

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The first step is to recognize the signs of burnout and determine whether you might have it or be on the verge of burning out. One of the best and most effective burnout-prevention tactics you can employ is setting work boundaries, which may require taking a mental health day every now and then. You should also start a practice of saying "no" to things that don't serve you.

Don't forget about the stress that a seemingly healthy habit can have on you, either: If you're an avid exerciser that feels fatigued and irritable all the time, you may want to tone your workouts down a notch, or just take some time away from the gym. Overtraining syndrome is a condition that can reach into other aspects of your life.

Likewise, your diet may have an impact. Eating a diet high in processed foods is known to contribute to poor moods and low productivity, while a healthful diet can support good moods, focus and better productivity. Make sure you are getting enough calories in, too: Eating too little while trying to do all the things is a surefire way to feel poorly, both physically and mentally. 

Though there's a section devoted to sleep later in this article, I'd be remiss not to point out the relationship between lack of sleep and burnout. A 2012 study (PDF) in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that lack of sleep is a primary risk factor for developing burnout, and a 2018 study said that insomnia is "significantly associated with burnout in our population of white-collar workers.

How to cope with COVID-19 anxiety 

calming techniques anxiety attack

Calming your anxiety is largely about knowing your triggers and understanding activities that help soothe you, which may be as simple as looking out your window to center yourself.

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Anxiety is like a modern cognitive plague. Ask anyone you know if they've ever experienced anxiety and the answer is likely "yes" -- anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorder in the US, affecting about 40 million adults. And that doesn't even include all of the people who deal with low-grade anxiety and aren't diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Even in the absence of true anxiety attacks, this sort of buzzing anxiety can be a detriment to your health, mood, sleep, productivity and relationships.

Dealing with anxiety can feel fruitless at times, but it's definitely possible with the right techniques under your belt and the help of a qualified professional if you need one. Try starting with these five life hacks for relieving anxiety, and then take a gander at the anxiety-related content below:

How to meditate and why it works

meditating for mental health

Meditating daily or a few times per week can serve as a great preventive practice to control anxiety and stress.

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Meditation is a highly effective way of dealing with stress, depression and anxiety. But rather than using it to stop an anxiety attack that's already started, meditation should be used as a daily preventative tactic

Researchers think that meditation can improve emotional health because it affects the amygdala, which is a major emotional processing center of your brain. Studies have found that regular meditation can increase a process called gyrification, which results in more outer folds in your brain and is thought to help with information processing. Some research suggests that meditation also slows or stalls age-related changes in the brain. 

Aside from the brain, meditation has also been found to improve heart rate variability, a marker that indicates how well you handle stress. 

Convinced you need to add meditation to your arsenal of mental health tools? Try out one of these great meditation apps to get started. As you get deeper into the practice, you may want to look into a wellness or meditation retreat as well. 

Get outdoors to relieve stress 

spend time outdoors for mental health

Getting outside is good for the body, mind and soul. It can help even if you can't get to a crazy-cool location: Your backyard will do just fine!

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You've probably heard that vitamin D is essential for, well, a whole lot of things. You've probably also heard vitamin D referred to as "the sunshine vitamin." Put two and two together and you can likely infer that going outside is good for you! 

Spending time in the great outdoors and connecting with nature is known to improve mood and reduce cortisol levels (your body's main stress hormone). Even putting plants in your office or home can improve your productivity and a daily nature jaunt can restore your ability to focus (goodbye, post-lunch slump!). 

In fact, forest bathing or shinrin-yoku, a Japanese practice of nature therapy, is proven to reduce stress and anxiety as well as fatigue and confusion. Forest bathing may also reduce feelings of anger and depression. These benefits are likely due in part to the positive effects of forest bathing on stress-related physiological markers, such as blood pressure and heart rate.

If you work indoors, you might find it difficult to get enough sunshine and fresh air. Try bringing activities that you would normally do inside to outside. 


The mental health benefits of exercise 

yoga for mental health

Yoga and just about all other forms of exercise can greatly benefit your mental health.

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The obvious benefits of exercise manifest on the outside: You may lose weight, tone up, build muscle and even get better skin. What goes on inside your body is arguably more important, though. 

Exercise can actually make you happier via a number of mechanisms, but the boost of endorphins or feel-good chemicals is the most immediate and probably the most prominent for most people (a runner's high is a real thing!). The intense wave of happiness and energy you feel right after a workout may not last all day, but scientists have made some pretty intriguing conclusions about how exercising affects your brain over time. 

For example, a 2014 study in Frontiers in Physiology found that regular exercise can help people become more resilient to stress -- in lay terms, that means you can bounce back more easily from stressful or emotional situations.

It's also been pretty well-established that physical activity can play a big role in reducing symptoms of depression. In fact, a 2018 review in Frontiers in Psychology concluded that "if prescribed and delivered correctly, exercise can be as effective as other first-line treatments, while being mostly free of adverse side-effects."

This section of this article is far from a comprehensive guide on the mental health benefits of exercise, but does serve to show that the science is compelling. 

If you struggle with low-grade depression, anxiety or even just moodiness, it may be worth picking up an exercise habit if you don't exercise already. If you've been diagnosed with a psychiatric condition or think you may have one, discuss the possibility of an exercise program with your mental health professional.

Sleep and mental health 

sleep is good for mental health

Take it from cats: Lots of sleep is good for you.

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At CNET, we tend to harp on sleep a lot, but that's only because we know exactly how important it is to overall health, both physical and mental. Sleep is the foundation beneath everything you do: Without enough of it, you can't be as productive at work or school; you can't work out as intensely (and your muscles and joints don't recover as quickly); you may experience mood swings and low moods. 

In fact, in a 2018 editorial in Pharmacy and Therapeutics called "The Extraordinary Importance of Sleep," scientists discuss how "inadequate sleep due to sleep disorders, work schedules and chaotic lifestyles continues to threaten both health and safety," concluding concretely that inadequate sleep is a detriment to essentially all health outcomes. 

"It is clear that sleep loss has a profound effect on human health and well-being," concludes a manual on sleep deprivation, which includes an overall lower quality of life. 

Short-term consequences of inadequate sleep can include an increased stress response, headaches, poor focus and productivity, depressive symptoms, increased risk-taking behavior, increased emotional reactivity (e.g. going off at the slightest annoyance), shorter attention spans, slower information processing and increased anxiety, according to a large review of studies on sleep

Again, this isn't intended to be a comprehensive look at all of the ways that sleep supports your mental health, although these few selected studies highlight some of the most important mechanisms by which sleep can improve anxiety, depression, decision-making and cognitive function. 

If you struggle to get a good night's rest, consider talking to your doctor about what you're experiencing before turning to over-the-counter sleep aids. Also take a look at your caffeine consumption habits, your evening routine, diet and exercise habits to find out if there are any opportunities for improvement.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.