One year later, pandemic health concerns remain pressing

Surveys show many of us aren’t sleeping well, and eating and drinking too much. What can we do to mitigate these impacts?

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

Shortly afterwards, millions of Americans went home to shelter in place. Health care facilities, including The Everett Clinic, shut down all elective medical care to make room for patients who needed COVID testing and treatment.

We all thought the shutdown would last a few weeks, but it wasn’t long before we realized the pandemic and its impact would be felt for months. It’s been over a year that our lives have dramatically changed as we have worked together to lower the infection rate.

In February 2021, the American Psychological Association commissioned a survey of adults by the Harris Poll to assess the health impact of the pandemic over the last year. The poll surveyed 3,013 adults in the United States.

The findings? We are struggling.

A majority of adults (61%) reported experiencing weight gain since the start of the pandemic, with 42% of this group indicating a median weight gain of 15 pounds. Many of us sought the shelter of comfort food, with resulting weight gain. This significant weight gain can potentially impact our health. The CDC has noted that people who are overweight are more likely to develop serious illness from COVID as well as other health problems.

Two in three Americans (67%) said they are sleeping more or less than they wanted to since the pandemic began, and 35% said they were sleeping less than desired. Sleep is important for feeling well. I’ve spoken to scores of adults who were having trouble falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night because they’re worried about themselves and their families.

Nearly one in four adults (23%) said they were drinking more alcohol to cope with stress. This proportion jumps to more than half (52%) who have elementary school-age children. Another survey found that 60% of the respondents indicated increased drinking during the pandemic. These are unsurprising findings, but troubling.

Gen Z adults (46%) were most likely to say that their mental health had worsened compared to Gen Xers (33%), millennials (31%) and boomers (28%). Older adults were the least impacted — only 9% said that their mental health had worsened. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in their 2019 pulse surveys found that 11% of adults had symptoms of anxiety or depression. Between Jan. 6 and March 1, 41% of adults in pulse surveys indicated symptoms of anxiety or depression.

In the APA survey, 75% of the respondents reported a high stress level during the past year related to the pandemic. In our Behavioral Health department at The Everett Clinic, we’ve received an average of 1,260 referrals per month for behavioral health services since September 2020.

So, what can we do to mitigate these pandemic impacts?

■ Take stock. Step back and ask yourself, “How have I been impacted by COVID this last year?” Note changes in weight, sleep, mood, outlook, and the use of alcohol or drugs. How has COVID impacted your health? Your relationships? Your use of time? Your overall stress level? Be honest with yourself.

■ What changes are you most concerned about? Which are the health changes that most concern you? Work on only one concern at a time. Establish goals for the health issue you are most worried about. If increased alcohol use is a concern, consider taking a break from drinking altogether and notice how you feel. Or make a decision to set some limits for yourself.

■ Ask for help. Your primary care provider is a great resource for obtaining help for a variety of health behaviors. Make an appointment to discuss your concerns.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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