An illustration of two humans are shown looking at each other.
A focus on overall well-being is imperative as we continue to make our way through the pandemic. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

It’s no secret. COVID-19 is getting us down.

About 78% of Americans say the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, according to research from the American Psychological Association.

And 1 in 5 adults say their mental health is worse today compared to 2019.

While these are not surprising statistics, psychologists are hopeful our collective outlook may soon improve as infection rates go down, more vaccinations are administered and winter weather eases into spring.

In the meantime, they share their best tips for how to shake off the gloom and prepare for sunnier days ahead.

Be a realist

For some, the best solution is conventional talk therapy.

Meeting with mental health professionals—a universe that includes psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, as well as counselors and clergy—won’t make the pandemic go away, but it can help people put their struggles into perspective.

It’s also a way to learn valuable coping tools.

Still, that approach doesn’t appeal to everyone, said Courtney Golding, PhD, a psychologist with the Spectrum Health Sleep Disorders Center.

The good news? Plenty of therapies are available to help reduce stress and boost spirits.

When safer-at-home orders took hold this past spring as the pandemic emerged in the U.S., the internet exploded with ideas about how it would be a perfect chance to engage your creatives pursuits—write a novel, perfect a yoga handstand, master sourdough bread.

Elaborate jigsaw puzzles and high-end coloring books were soon hard to come by.

For some, the optimism proved short-lived. Months of Zoom meetings and virtual schooling have worn people down.

“That’s why now is an incredible time to find a passion or a hobby, even if you didn’t at the beginning of the pandemic,” Dr. Golding said. “This is a very demoralizing time—and finding a new healthy pursuit, at a realistic level, can help.”

The difference between your efforts now versus the beginning of the pandemic? Realism.

“It’s so important to say, ‘I’m going to try some art projects,’ and understand that you’ll be working with stick figures—not making something that will wind up hanging in the Art Institute,” she said. “It’s important to acknowledge that right now, many people feel like they’re doing well if they can get out of bed and brush their teeth.”

You can pursue many activities that have proven therapeutic value.

Wilderness therapy

It’s well-acknowledged that time spent in the great outdoors is beneficial on multiple levels.

It can help struggling teens, veterans with PTSD and cancer survivors.

Try the “sit-spot challenge.”

It’s a simple technique beloved by wildlife educators, outdoor therapists and meditation instructors alike. It’s as useful for preschoolers as it is for stressed-out adults.

Find a “sit-spot.”

Your location of choice should be easy for you to get to. The idea is you simply go there and sit for as little as five minutes at a time.

Once you’re there, stop and take notice of what you see.

Different birds, different sounds, different light.

Try to gradually increase your time outdoors, even in cold weather. It’s a proven way to lift your mood, whether it’s a short walk or a hard-core snowshoe adventure.

Art therapy

Something as simple as basic scribbling and doodling can help kids. Art therapy is a proven tool for adults, too.

It helps “foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change,” notes the American Art Therapy Association.

Try some simple exercises as a family—create a mandala, or make one butterfly per day.

Organizations such as the American Art Therapy Association offer a wealth of resources for virtual learning.

Dance therapy

The physical and emotional benefits of dance therapy are well known.

Dancing can help you if you’re battling health conditions such as cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure. It can also reduce the risk of dementia.

Dance is also an ancient part of who we are. It’s how we communicate and express ourselves. Researchers have found the genes related to expressive dance go back 1.5 million years.

New forms of dance crazes took off early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the likes of TikTok challenges embraced by millions.

But as a mental health tool, dance therapy is more than just a boredom-buster. It’s used to fight stress and improve body image and self-esteem.

The American Dance Therapy Association offers some online resources.

Dr. Golding says it’s helpful to experiment with these types of pursuits.

“One of the few good things about the pandemic is that for many people, it’s meant they have more free time,” she said. “They don’t have as many obligations or meetings, and they spend less time commuting.”

Your goal should be to spend that time in ways that are as pleasant as possible.

Track your progress

Tracking how people feel during leisure time is essential.

“The first symptom of depression, of course, is feeling down,” Dr. Golding said. “But equally important is anhedonia, the technical term for losing interest in the things you used to enjoy.”

Dr. Golding, who keeps her spirits up these days with online cooking classes, says tracking can be as basic as periodically asking ourselves, “How am I really doing?”

If things that once inspired happiness don’t work anymore and new activities aren’t enjoyable, don’t wait until it’s worse to contact a therapist.

“This isn’t an easy time for people,” Dr. Golding said. “And there’s no reason not to reach out for help.”