SF State psychiatrist shares pandemic mental health tips

Overhead view of a green ribbon placed on top of a paper cutout of a head shape.

A green ribbon is a symbol that represents mental health awareness. (Photo by WindyNight / Adobe Stock)

Ronald Holt says reframing thoughts, journaling and establishing a routine can help keep negativity at bay

Staying positive isn’t always easy under normal circumstances. Throw in a global pandemic and a troubled economy, and it might seem almost impossible.

“COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our lives like no other event in recent memory,” said Psychiatrist Ronald Holt of San Francisco State University’s Student Health Center. “This sudden uncertainty has caused many of us to become fearful, anxious and unsettled.”

That makes the observance of May as Mental Health Awareness Month even more significant this year. Rarely have so many of us had to face such intense worries. Fortunately, Holt says there are simple steps we can all take to keep negative feelings at bay — or at least under control.

Journal to understand your thoughts

If you wrote in a diary when you were younger, now is the perfect moment to revisit this classic pastime. Journaling is a healthy way to express your thoughts and understand them better, Holt says.

Let’s say you’re stressed, for example. Write down this emotion and what’s causing you to feel this way. Then come up with a plan to address your stressors. Journaling gives you the space to identify your emotions and decide how you want to react to them instead of the other way around: your emotions dictating your behavior.

Develop a routine

Because sheltering in place has disrupted our everyday lives, you may find your schedule out of whack. Holt says this is common, but he emphasizes the importance of getting back to a routine. Giving life a familiar and comfortable rhythm creates a sense of certainty during a time that is unpredictable.

“Since there are many things about the pandemic we can’t control, we need to shift our focus to the things we can control,” Holt said. “That includes pursuing activities we loved before the pandemic while still adhering to shelter-in-place orders.”

Reframe your thoughts

It’s easy to focus on the many downsides of our current pandemic reality. But shifting your perspective to focus on something positive can make a big difference, Holt says. For example, rather than thinking about how upset you are about sheltering in place, think about how fortunate you are to be able to protect yourself and others from possible COVID-19 exposure.

Stay connected

Although we are physically distancing ourselves from one another, we can still stay socially connected. Technology makes it possible for us to call loved ones, join video chats with friends or play online video games with family members. The National Alliance on Mental Illness of California shares more suggestions on its website.

Exercise to keep your mind and body fit

Public gyms may be closed, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go for neighborhood walks or work out at home if possible. Studies show that regular exercise not only helps the body, but also the mind. Check to see if your fitness center of choice is offering video workouts that can be streamed online. San Francisco State Campus Recreation provides a link to free online workouts

Seek professional help

If you are really struggling with your mental health during this time, you are not alone and there are many resources available and people who can help. There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking professional help during this time, Holt emphasizes.

If you’re a student, SF State’s Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) is a great place to start. If you’re a faculty or staff member, visit the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) website. The National Institute of Mental Health website also maintains a list of resources, and Holt started a YouTube video series to provide students with mental health tips that can help them navigate the pandemic better.

“It is normal to have fear about what the future holds, but sometimes this fear can turn into more significant symptoms of mental health issues,” said Holt. “We need to maintain our mental health so that we can be there for ourselves and others.”