COVID-19 has had a massive, devastating effect on humanity’s physical health. But as the virus continues to spread and social distancing and other public health measures go on interminably, mental health issues are skyrocketing as well.

“This pandemic is multifaceted,” said UT Health San Antonio clinical health psychologist Kathryn E. Kanzler, PsyD. “Not only do we have the threat of illness or worse, we’ve had some significant changes in how we do things to prevent the spread, but they have side effects. Doing things like social distancing or staying away from people you know very well and love, that’s hard. So you have that social aspect to the pandemic. A lot of people have had economic fallout as well. Maybe they’ve lost their job.

“We are dealing with a lot of loss right now, sometimes traumatic loss,” she added. “Some of us are dealing with grief because we have lost loved ones to COVID-19. But we are also dealing with losses in other ways, for example, losing a job opportunity, and through countless canceled events, both big, like a graduation, and small, like coffee dates.”

All of which has led to an outbreak of stress, anxiety, lack of motivation, loneliness and feelings of isolation, said Dr. Kanzler, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences with a joint appointment in Family and Community Medicine.

She emphasized that what most people are feeling today is not clinical depression or even an adjustment disorder such as low-grade depression.

“Most people who feel like they’re struggling in this pandemic are having a stress reaction, which is actually to be expected given our unusual circumstances,” said Dr. Kanzler, who is based at UT Health San Antonio’s Center for Research to Advance Community Health (ReACH).  “We’re having a very normal reaction to an abnormal situation.”

The pandemic blues can be difficult to shake, but Dr. Kanzler offered several coping mechanisms.

Stay connected

Most importantly, she said, is maintaining relationships with what and who we value the most. “The circumstances of the pandemic have separated us from our usual ways of living, our usual activities and routines and people,” Dr. Kanzler said. “When we stop doing the things that are meaningful to us, for whatever reason, it can make us feel worse. You lose the connection to what’s important.”

The reality of social distancing means “people have had to get creative to stay connected,” she said. “They’re doing these family games online or maybe they’re keeping in touch other ways through technology if they can’t meet face to face. I know some people doing things through the mail — sending actual cards and letters.”

All the family Zooms and games and computer outreach “is not the same, and it’s a poor substitute, but that’s OK,” Dr. Kanzler said. “We can’t ignore [the relationship] or kind of just wait until later. I think many of us, I know I did, thought that these circumstances would not last as long as they have. So we can’t wait to stay connected. We have to do it now.”

Move it

“Any time we can be active and physically exercising, that’s going to help with stress and mood,” Dr. Kanzler said. “It makes a big difference with our body’s functioning, our sleep, fatigue. Whether you valued exercise or not before the pandemic, now is a great time to figure out what may be a good exercise for you and do it.”

It doesn’t have to be all that strenuous either, she added. A brisk walk in the fresh air can work wonders.


“A lot of times, the things we need to do the most when we’re stressed, we stop doing them,” she said. “It’s really important to make sure we get as much sleep as we can. I will say that having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep could be a normal thing right now. But a lot of times people stay up late because they’re looking at their phones or watching some show or Netflix or something; they’re doing things that make them stay up late. And that’s a good place to make a change. Turn off the electronics earlier. Try to unwind. Then you’d have a better chance of getting a good night’s sleep.”

Eat well

“What we eat can absolutely affect our mood,” Dr. Kanzler said, “as well as our physical health. Now is a great time to pay attention to what makes our body feel good. And I don’t mean temporarily, like from a lot of sugar or caffeine or something. … A healthy diet would be eating fruits and vegetables, whole foods, minimally processed foods, staying away from fried foods or foods that are very high in sugar or high in fat. Treats are fine — in moderation.”


Relaxation techniques vary widely based on the individual, Dr. Kanzler said. “For some people it might be listening to relaxing music. Others might sit in a quiet room and take some deep slow breaths. Some people relax through movement, like yoga. Taking a walk might be relaxing. There are a lot of different things we can do to calm our bodies and minds.”

Try this, try that

Dr. Kanzler said it’s more than OK to experiment with all these coping mechanisms. “It’s important for people to find what works for them, whether it’s a particular way to exercise or relax or whatever,” she said. “Everyone is different. The best exercise for you is the one you’ll actually do. Don’t be afraid to try new things.”

So learn Italian. Take that violin out of the closet and dust it off. And by all means, give that sourdough recipe a shot. Any of these can be stress relievers.

Someone to lean on

If you’re feeling particularly down or stressed, Dr. Kanzler said, ask for help. “Reach out for support. Maybe that’s just a friend or family member. Sometimes we need other people in our lives who can say, come on, you can do it. It’s hard to generate that by yourself, especially if you happen to be living alone or you’re lonely. Drumming up that motivation to make a change or do something different — sometimes we need other people to help with that.”

Pay it forward

Caring about and helping others even when facing our own difficulties — getting outside of ourselves — makes us happier and healthier, too.

It’s important to remember that certain groups are more affected by the pandemic than others, Dr. Kanzler said. “People from marginalized communities, those who are economically vulnerable, who have chronic diseases, people from our Black and Latinx communities, we know that COVID is affecting these populations more. Even if we’re doing OK or we’re a little stressed out, there might be people around us who are having a much harder time. It’s important to check on others. Be aware of their circumstances.”

Bottom line

“There is a lot of uncertainty these days,” Dr. Kanzler said. “In time, things will change and our pandemic blues will fade. While we await the future, it’s helpful to accept things as they are and make changes where we can. Right now, it’s important to stay focused on what matters most — taking care of our health and taking care of each other.”

If you are having symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide, there’s a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 1-800-273-8255 — available 24 hours a day in English and Spanish.