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How are you coping with shutdown? UW study wants to know

Artwork painted on plywood covering a downtown Seattle business closed during the lockdown this past spring. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Human beings are social animals — we need interaction to be healthy. But it’s hard to be social when you’re stuck in your home in a pandemic, exacerbating things like anxiety and depression. That being so, the University of Washington is tracking the mental health of 500 people in King County to see how they’re coping.

Taking care of mental health, preventing suicides critical during pandemic

I’m not too proud to say my mood swings are crazy these days. Worrying about finances; worrying about my son’s situation as a high school senior and what college might look like; worrying about job losses and family finances. Sometimes it’s overwhelming.

I know I’m not alone in this. The situation is likely the biggest mental challenge any of us have faced.

Dr. Jonathan Kanter is director of UW’s Center for Science of Social Connection. He started a unique study on March 14. It tracks 500 people with a daily smartphone survey, simply asking questions about how they are doing.

“We are tracking people for 75 days, every evening on their smartphones with a short survey,” he said. “How they’re feeling? Depression. Anxiety. Feeling overwhelmed. Loneliness. Social isolation and all that stuff.”

It’s the first time researchers have used a daily survey to better capture moods.

Dr. Kanter said his survey shows that people are doing okay right now, but it wasn’t that way at the start.

“When all of this was coming down and hitting the community really hard, people were fairly overwhelmed,” he said. “What we have seen over the month-and-a-half now is people are doing better and better over time.”

We are adapting, but we are also self-medicating more. Drug use, alcohol consumption, and cigarette smoking have all been on the rise. These methods are not necessarily the best salve to stave off depression or other mental health issues.

Tips on staying sane and healthy while working from home

But Dr. Kanter said depression doesn’t appear as widespread as he thought it would. Depression, he said, is usually made worse when others are doing better than you when you are struggling. During this pandemic, we’re all struggling to some extent.

“The crisis is actually offering some factors that are protecting people against having normal experiences of clinical depression,” he noted.

UW has now expanded the survey to reach outside of King County. It still includes the daily survey, but it now includes self-help tips for half of the respondents.

And if you’re feeling the weight of the world or your anxiety is mounting, Dr. Kanter said you shouldn’t worry. It’s natural.

“This is how normal human beings react and our bodies react when presented with this kind of situation,” he said.

His advice is to find some quiet time every day away from everyone else, and focus on deep breathing.

And don’t forget to reach out to others. A simple text. A quick video chat. Something to encourage some social interaction.

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