COVID-19 is disrupting American life in unprecedented ways — inciting a wave of anxiety across the country. Even before the pandemic reached a tipping point last week, more than a third of adults surveyed said that coronavirus was having a negative impact on their mental health. More than half were worried about losing their jobs — and even more feared someone in their family would get sick.

And as this crisis continues, we can expect those numbers to surge.

On top of the fear of contracting COVID-19, millions are living with growing financial anxiety as businesses shutter and 401(k)s plummet. Parents across the country are struggling to work without the support of child care. The elderly and sick are finding themselves more alone than ever. This is to say nothing of our frontline health workforce, who are working 15+ hour shifts under increasingly hazardous conditions.

Our collective stress has the potential to become long-term, sustained strain as the fallout of this pandemic ripples through society. In that sense, the mental and emotional toll of COVID-19 is as much a threat to public health as the virus itself.

Chronic, unrelenting stress — particularly the kind that comes from the loss of meaningful work, financial hardship, or constant exhaustion — is tough on our minds and our bodies. It causes “wear and tear” that can trigger a cascade of adverse health outcomes like heart disease, obesity, and stroke. It can also induce people to consume more alcohol and drugs with further adverse effects on their health.

Loneliness is another social determinant of health. Studies show that people who lack strong social connections often have disrupted sleep patterns, more inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones. It can weaken their immune systems, reducing their ability to fend off disease. All told, evidence suggests that loneliness can be worse for your health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

So, as we in the public health community work to keep people safe amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s critical that we prioritize mental and emotional health, too — especially for those who are already prone to depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.

And all of us should take extra time and care for ourselves during this time of upheaval. Of course, many of our go-tos for coping with stress — going to the gym, grabbing dinner with friends, watching sports or attending church — are off-limits for the foreseeable future. But in the meantime, there are lots of things we can do to improve our well-being.

1. Practice physical distancing — but not social isolation. Thanks to technology, there are countless ways to stay close to our loved ones while keeping a healthy physical distance. Check in on family over Skype or FaceTime, call up old friends, or respond to those emails you’ve been meaning to get around to for weeks (or months). The more connected we stay with one another, the better off we’ll all be.

2Stay mindful and active. Keeping our minds and bodies busy is key to overall wellnessespecially in times of crisis. Make it a point to engage in activities that bring you joy, whether that’s taking a long walk, trying a new recipe, or practicing a musical instrument. Do try to resurrect that old hobby that somehow got lost in the rush of a busy life or learn a new language that you always wanted to. There are also hundreds of apps dedicated to yoga, mindful meditation, home-workouts, and other activities to help you stay calm and present.

3. Limit news consumption. It’s important to get accurate, up-to-date information throughout the pandemic, but binge-reading or watching the news can negatively impact your well-being. Limit the amount of time you spend consuming social media or news that doesn’t make you feel better. And remember that it’s okay to unplug for a while.

4. Create a new routine to fit your new normal. In this time of uncertainty, structure can alleviate our anxiety and give us a sense of control over our day-to-day lives. Try to stick to a set schedule, with a consistent sleeping and wake-up time each day and having regular and nutritious meals. And set a few manageable daily goals for yourself.

5. Seek help when you need it. It’s important to reach out if you’re feeling overwhelmed. That can mean talking to friends or family or someone else you trust. It can also mean engaging with a mental health professional. It may not be feasible to see a therapist in person right now, but many insurers like Medicare are expanding coverage for telehealth services.

There’s no question that the coming weeks and months will be difficult, and the most trying times are still ahead. No one can say for certain how long this pandemic will last or when our lives will get back to normal. Some people are even predicting a new normal! But if we take good care of ourselves and each other, we can emerge from this crisis more resilient — and, just maybe, mentally stronger than ever before.

Click here for information about how Thrive Global is supporting our healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, and find out how you can support the cause by donating to #FirstRespondersFirst.


  • Michelle A. Williams

    Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

    Michelle A. Williams, SM ’88, ScD ’91, is Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development, a joint faculty appointment at the Harvard Chan School and Harvard Kennedy School. She is an internationally renowned epidemiologist and public health scientist, an award-winning educator, and a widely recognized academic leader. Prior to becoming Dean, she was Professor and Chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard Chan School and Program Leader of the Population Health and Health Disparities Research Programs at Harvard’s Clinical and Translational Sciences Center. Dean Williams previously had a distinguished career at the University of Washington School of Public Health. Her scientific work places special emphasis in the areas of reproductive, perinatal, pediatric, and molecular epidemiology. Dean Williams has published over 450 scientific articles. She was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2016. The Dean has a master’s in civil engineering from Tufts University and master’s and doctoral degrees in epidemiology from the Harvard Chan School.
  • Shekhar Saxena

    Professor of the Practice of Global Mental Health at the Department of Global Health and Population

    Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health

    Shekhar Saxena is Professor of the Practice of Global Mental Health at the Department of Global Health and Population at the Havard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. A psychiatrist by training, he has served in the World Health Organization (WHO) since 1998. From 2010 to 2018 he was the Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the WHO. In 2017, he received the prestigious Leon Eisenberg Award from Harvard Medical School. Author of more than 300 academic papers, he functioned as an editor of the Lancet Series on Global Mental Health 2007 and 2011, and the Lancet Commission on Global Mental Health and Sustainable Development 2018. His expertise includes providing advice and technical assistance to policy makers on prevention and management of mental, developmental, neurological and substance use disorders and suicide prevention.