Though the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on mental health have not been systematically studied, it is anticipated there will be rippling effects based on public reaction, said Chris Miller, a neuroscientist and psychology professor at Fresno State.

Miller studies the neural basis of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety using neuroimaging tools such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Individuals respond to crises in wide-ranging ways that generally involve the activation of a biological circuit known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system. When the HPA system is activated, the hormone cortisol is released into the bloodstream. That is a normally healthy response that enables the body to cope with an immediate stressor, Miller said.

However, chronically high levels of cortisol are toxic to brain regions such as the hippocampus, an important structure in memory formation, and can cause various health problems such as fatigue, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, irritability, headaches, hypertension, digestive upset and diminished immune function.

“A diminished immune function is especially concerning, given the present situation, and it’s important for people to realize that mental health is a contributing factor to their ability to fight infectious diseases,” Miller said.

This may be a particularly tough time for individuals who are vulnerable to depression and anxiety. Many psychiatric clinics and counseling centers continue to operate as normally as possible and use technologies such as teleconferencing to continue to deliver services to new and returning patients.

It is important to understand there are proactive steps individuals can take to manage stress and promote greater mental health during this time, Miller said.

Here are Miller’s four tips:

  1. Promote social connections with loved ones. This includes both reaching out for interactions and for help (while maintaining appropriate physical distancing when possible) as well as providing such support to others. Social support is one of the most important predictors of mental health and is something we can largely control.
  2. Participate in stress-relief activities. Self-care strategies vary among individuals, but often include exercise, meditation, reading, playing games, multimedia entertainment and social interactions. Remember that you can lean on these behaviors and routines to help you manage stress better when needed.
  3. Adopt a positive perspective. Though it’s important to be realistic about the negative impact of this situation, it’s also helpful to engage in positive reappraisal of the situation and consider how it may allow you to focus on other things such as adopting a new hobby, taking more time for yourself and focusing on nurturing close relationships.
  4. Maintain physical health. In addition to the psychological strategies above, maintaining physical health will likely help you manage stress levels and maintain mental health. This includes daily activities such as healthy dieting and exercising as well as managing medical conditions by continuing to take prescribed medications and seeking treatment, as needed.