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Social Support, Flexibility Key to Mental Health During COVID Lockdowns

Woman standing in kitchen, holding child and talking on the phone

Key Takeaways

  • Regardless of mental wellness at the beginning of the pandemic, a majority of individuals were negatively affected.
  • Social support and psychological flexibility were two of the biggest factors in determining the level of mental health decline.
  • Mental health interventions should focus on individuals without support systems.

After several long months of worldwide complications, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have crossed over into the new year. While 2021 brings with it the hope of some positive change, there are still ongoing mental health concerns.

Researchers remain focused on understanding the effects of the pandemic on mental health, and the risks we all face during this time. A recent study published in PLOS One sought to find which factors played the biggest role in mental health decline, and found that social support and psychological flexibility are key components in determining a person's response to lockdown.

With the pandemic bringing significant life changes for many, ranging from job loss and illness to general fear and anxiety, the effects on mental wellness are varied, as well. Whether these stressors manifested as anger, depression, or malaise, researchers have found that a majority of individuals were negatively affected by lockdown, regardless of their mental wellness prior to the pandemic.

The researchers utilized several categories during their study, including previous psychological factors and access to needed supplies during the lockdown, as well as the participants' reported outcomes, such as wellbeing, depression, and stress.

What Is Psychological Flexibility? 

Psychological flexibility is the ability to quickly adapt to a changing situation or challenging time. Many of us were blindsided by the news of lockdown, quarantine protocols, and the death of hundreds of thousands of people due to the coronavirus.

While no one can be expected to be completely unaffected by this, how we recover from a stressful situation is an indication of our psychological flexibility. Haley Neidich, LCSW, says, “Psychological flexibility is an adaptive coping mechanism, and people who embody this have decreased levels of stress and typically report a higher level of life satisfaction than those who do not. In practice, this looks like being non- or minimally reactive to a challenge, and allowing yourself to creatively solve the problem without allowing it to ruin your day.”

This flexibility can feel easier said than done for some. It is important to remember that while this ability to adapt is useful, it can be a process. Nekeshia Hammond, PsyD, says, “Being psychologically flexible is one of the greatest mental health gifts to have... It is not easy to always be psychologically flexible, but it is helpful for you to work towards achieving more flexibility in your life."

She adds that mental toughness and psychological flexibility are both great tools for your mental health toolkit. “Celebrate the baby steps during this process and give yourself grace and ease in learning how to be more psychologically flexible," Hammond says.

The Role of Support

Studies have shown that the role of support is vital in recovery of both physical and mental wellbeing. We have seen that loneliness plays a huge role in the depression that comes along with stay-at-home orders, making the necessity of socialization and support blindingly apparent.

Haley Neidich, LCSW

Social support, even during normal times, is one of the most vital pillars of mental health recovery. Particularly given how isolated, afraid, and traumatized individuals are right now, feeling a sense of connection and support from others can be a saving grace.

— Haley Neidich, LCSW

Our continued physical distance from friends and loved ones is a major contributor to the anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other effects that people are feeling, Neidich says.

How Can You Ensure Support Right Now?

Both Neidich and Hammond encourage the use of safety protocols and practices, but not to the extent of self-isolation. Isolation and depression can easily serve as a dangerous cycle, and while it can be easy to fall into that pattern during stay-at-home orders, it is important to create and sustain positive practices and systems for yourself.

Don’t Be Afraid to Reconnect

For some, the idea of building a new support system can feel overwhelming, due to the state of your existing relationships and working schedule. Do not let this deter you, especially considering that many of us are in the same boat.

Neidich says, “Reaching out to someone you've lost touch with who already knows you, even a little bit, is a great place to start. Facebook groups and other online forums specific to your community can also be a great way to meet other isolated folks who may be able to meet up in person for a socially distanced hang."

Neidich notes that even superficial friendships can be supportive at this time. Even if you're just checking in and discussing light topics, it can help you feel connected and supported.

There Is Definitely an App for That

We are all utilizing the digital world extensively, causing an influx of accessibility for services previously only offered in person. Hammond supports the idea of going online to connect with others, and says, “There are a lot of different communities developing in the online space where you can receive the mental support you need. There are apps, podcasts, interactive communities on social media, and others that can provide social support.”

Connect With Someone at Least Once a Day

It can be easy to slip into the chaotic cycle of the work week without being intentional about your connections. Regardless of what is on the schedule, make some time to connect with someone else, at least once during the day.

Neidich says, “My rule of thumb with social support right now is at the bare minimum, a phone call or video check-in with another human being once per day. We can get so used to just chatting with people online or via text that we forget the power of hearing someone's voice or seeing their face live.”

Safely Visit With Nearby Friends and Loved Ones

Safety is an ongoing concern, especially for those with older family members or compromised immune systems. This has discouraged some from meeting in person, but having outdoor, socially distanced meet-ups with masks could be a viable option. With vaccine distribution underway, such meet-ups may soon be even safer, though it's important to continue following the safety protocols even after being vaccinated.

“For loved ones and friends who live close, finding an outdoor place where social distancing can be upheld and scheduling a regular time to meet is a great way to keep in touch and have something to look forward to," Neidich says.

Positively Utilize the Time You Have 

Neidich suggests being creative with your daily duties and combining connection with necessary tasks, such as phoning a friend while doing some chores, or co-working outside with a friend or neighbor. Many of us have increased or added responsibility with work or family, but there are ways to work with and around your schedule.

Prioritize Your Self-Care

Your mental wellness is vital. Putting yourself first may seem difficult or even selfish with everything that has happened over the past year, but it is necessary for sustainability.

“Commit to self-care, even if that means 15 minutes a day of some down time. Continue to connect with other positive individuals in your life who uplift and inspire you,” says Hammond, who also recommends limiting your exposure to social media and the news, which can be added stressors for a lot of us.

What This Means For You

Even after a year living through the pandemic, many individuals are still struggling to get ahold of their mental health. This situation is unprecedented, so both self-care and self-compassion are essential to surviving and thriving.

If you or a loved one are having any thoughts of self-harm or suicide, help is available 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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