While the physical toll is being tracked during the pandemic, there are no solid numbers yet to illustrate the overall impact on mental health. However, many experts are warning there could be a sweeping mental health crisis as a side effect of disengaging from socializing as well as staying inside.
What’s more is that some researchers are also saying the COVID-19 virus itself may affect the brain in negative ways, and impact mental health in the process.
While social distancing and lockdown restrictions are being lifted across the country, there are emerging cases of coronavirus that may have some people thinking twice about getting outside regularly. But keeping your distance from others is just one way to remain healthy — there are other approaches as well, says Eli Sheiman from Santa Barbara, California, a business development strategist who specializes in organic farming and has touted active lifestyles to classrooms.
It’s no secret that the pandemic has caused a lot of stress for the population, from people losing their livelihood to feeling isolated. Watching the daily news unfold can also take a toll emotionally and should be limited. However, while not all factors are within control right now, Mr. Sheiman says it’s more important than ever to get moving and make time for enjoyable activities to help cope with the unfolding situation.
Outdoor Activity Can Mitigate Stress
While Eli Sheiman has enjoyed outdoor recreation throughout his life including skateboarding and surfing, one doesn’t need to engage in “extreme” sports to get the benefits of exercise, he notes. Depending on fitness level or other barriers, walking for 30-minutes a day can be a suitable substitute. Another alternative is gardening, which has also been shown to have physical benefits while also benefitting mental health.
When it comes down to it, almost any form of moderate exercise done outdoors can be beneficial. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that exercise will naturally help reduce cortisol, a stress hormone, while boosting feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. Not only will this have a short-term benefit, but it can also condition the brain to deal with stress more effectively in the long run.
Boosting Vitamin D Levels
There are other benefits of getting active outdoors. Namely, it involves exposure to sunlight that maintains healthy levels of vitamin D, which depending on the region of the country can be in short supply. Sunlight carries UVB rays that the skin converts into this beneficial vitamin that is linked not only to bone health but a host of other health benefits. However, studies show that inadequate levels of vitamin D can also impact psychological well-being.
Getting adequate exposure to sunlight while taking any precautions to avoid sunburns can help stimulate the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. It’s likely no coincidence that many people experience seasonal depression during the colder months (a condition known as SAD) and researchers believe there may be a link to a drop in vitamin D3.
Eli Sheiman on the Benefits of Natural Light
Being indoors all the time likely also means getting mostly artificial light. Not only does natural light deliver vitamin D potential, but it can also help to stabilize mental health. In the context of a work environment, a lack of exposure to natural light can cause eye strain, as well as negatively impact productivity. While that doesn’t mean workers need to have their stations next to a window, some research suggests just 15 minutes or so of natural light can release endorphins that boost mood, notes Eli Sheiman.
While remaining inside may be recommended for the older population who is at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, being cut off from social contact can have detrimental effects on the brain. Engaging in (safely distanced) outdoor activities not only gives people the benefits of exercise and sunlight but also an opportunity to confide in friends. Social isolation in seniors has been shown to have a wide range of negative outcomes, including anxiety, depression, and an even higher risk of developing dementia.
Getting outside is one important way to manage stress, but deep breathing exercises, adequate rest, and a proper diet are also important tools for navigating the pandemic, says Eli Sheiman.