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Part III: How To Weather The Storm, Dr. Pennebaker Speaks About The COVID-19 Crisis

This is Part III of this 4-part series is which Dr. James Pennebaker discusses early research results on the best (and worst) habits that people are forming during the COVID crisis.

Read Part I: Studying Communities in Crisis

Read Part II: What's Happening Now and What Comes Next

What are some things that you can already see in your research on COVID-19 are beneficial or detrimental to mental health?

In our research we have been asking people questions since a week after everyone was sheltered in place, and we have asked about 10,000 people these questions now. We asked people how much of the last 24 hours they spent reading, watching television or movies, reading up on COVID or watching news about COVID, cooking, doing yard work, exercising, et cetera. And what we find was that the vast majority of people were sheltered in place almost all the time. The average person in our sample spent about 30 minutes the previous 24 hours shopping for groceries outside of the house, almost an hour exercising, and about an hour and 15 minutes outside. It varied, but they were pretty much housebound.

Roughly 17% of the people watched TV or movies for more than 12 hours the previous day. Same thing with video games and computer games. But now we’re able to line up the various things that people did and identify which of these behaviors were associated with people who were depressed versus not depressed. We found that 50-60% of people felt at least a little bit depressed the day before, and around 15-20% were depressed much of the previous 24 hours. In other words, this is something that is upsetting. Coming back to those activities, the more depressed you are, the more you are watching, talking, hearing, or reading about the coronavirus. In other words, we have advice for the news junkies who are into reading about the coronavirus: It's bad for you. Don't do it. Watch up to an hour of it to find out what's happening. But after the first hour, you're not going to learn anything new except it's still really bad. People really are dying. There are really horrible stories. So that's the number one pointer. That is the best predictor of depression. The second is watching more than five hours a day of television is not good for you. Playing video games for more than five hours is not good for you.

Those three things are probably the things that are the biggest risk factors, but there are some things that are good for you. One is talking to friends and family, whether face-to-face if you live together or by telephone or internet. Another thing that is very good for you is exercising. People who exercise are the least depressed of the group. And another one is spending some time outside -- even just sitting on your porch for 30 minutes is beneficial. So, there are some behaviours that are generally good for you and some that are probably generally bad for you. But I should warn you there's a big difference between correlation and causation. It could be that depression causes people to turn to video games rather than that playing eight hours of video games causes depression. There is evidence that playing video games all day is bad for you, but it’s still important to keep in mind.

Be aware of these habits and start experimenting with them yourself. See if more exercise makes you feel a little bit better. One other thing that we're starting to look at more closely is the power of setting up a schedule or a routine. Most of our lives prior to the COVID crisis, we've been guided by habits. Most of us got up at the same time every day, we brushed our teeth the same way, we went and dressed in the same way at a certain time. It’s almost horrifying just to think how regimented our lives were. And then suddenly we're in a new world where all those old routines are gone, and people often get depressed when their routines are gone for any reason. So, reconstructing a routine seems to be quite beneficial.

What else can people do to improve their mental health during this time?

If you stand back and you look at the field of health psychology and ask what we know that really works in helping people get through stress and dealing with life, there’s one thing that’s absolutely certain: the best is social support. Having a friendship network that you can rely on and who can rely on you too.

The second thing is exercise. There's no question, getting exercise is a really powerful predictor of improved health.

Another one is some type of relaxation. There are a million different types of it; it could be meditation, it could be yoga, it could be spiritual reflection or prayer, it could be anything where you can entirely relax.

And the last one is journaling or writing. Not something you necessarily need to do every day, but if you're having trouble sleeping or you're worrying about something too much, you can actually just sit back and write about what is bothering you. And it so happens that I've done a lot of research on this. It’s called expressive writing. And if you're interested in learning more about this, we have a free website that we've put together for people who are dealing with the stressors associated with COVID.

What are some indications of mental distress that people can look for in their own behavior?

How do you know if you're upset during a time like this? You might say “I'm fine,” but in fact anybody living with you might be saying, “something's the matter with you.” There are a lot of tells. One is, are you having trouble sleeping? Are you sleeping too much? Are you sleeping too little? Are you tired during the day? In other words, any major change your sleep patterns. The second is a change in eating patterns. Are you eating a lot more or a lot less? A third indicator is being much more sensitive. If you fly off the handle for no reason, or if you get angry or burst into tears for no apparent reason. All of these are really good markers of depression, and also of general anxiety or stress – and they're completely normal during times like this. Everybody has their own tells. Yours might be quite different from someone else’s. And if you're feeling these, that's a great time to start doing things like exercise, talking to friends, writing about your problems, or doing some kind of a meditation.