The same, strict measures keeping us physically safe from the current pandemic may also keep us mentally strong, researchers say.

One of the first longitudinal studies on the mental toll of COVID-19 has found wearing masks, social distancing and washing your hands is associated with a greater sense of positive mental health.

"Sometimes we need to take a break from thinking about how we feel," explains Jessica Myrick, who studies emotions and media at Pennsylvania State University.

"COVID-related messages that emphasise that even small actions are worthwhile might have the doubly positive effect of getting people to take small actions, like washing their hands more often, but also alleviate some mental strain, too."

The idea is supported by early pandemic research from China, which also found individuals who adopted precautionary measures like hand-washing experienced less stress, anxiety and depression overall.

In March, the United States declared a national emergency to stop the spread of COVID-19, and various social distancing measures, quarantine requirements, and face-covering policies were implemented throughout the country.

At the same time, people began to suffer from job losses, food scarcity, closed schools and daycares, and physical separation from friends and family, while the death toll continued to climb.

Some psychologists think this might trigger a 'tidal wave of grief'.

"I've spent much of my career studying social support, which is one important factor in how people respond to traumatic events," says social scientist Erina MacGeorge from PSU.

"Living through the earliest weeks of the pandemic, talking with friends, and reading news stories about the challenges we were all facing, I wanted to study relationships, supportive communication, and health during the pandemic."

In MacGeorge and team's online survey, 442 adults in the US completed a series of questions on their levels of stress, anxiety and depression, as well as their adherence to pandemic rules, their coping strategies, and their current financial, physical, social and mental states.

The questions were repeated at three different stages in the early pandemic: the first in late April, the second in early May and the third in mid-to-late May.

Generally speaking, the authors found a modest negative impact on the mental health of participants, although some groups of people suffered more than others.

In the early months of the pandemic, younger adults and those with pre-existing health conditions reported worse mental health on the whole.

"The influence of pre-existing health conditions is unsurprising," the authors write, "given that COVID-19 was recognised very quickly as more likely to be severe or deadly for those with such conditions, and warnings to this effect were incorporated in the national public health guidelines."

But young people are at less risk of COVID-19, so why are they so mentally exhausted? The authors point to a combination of factors such as loss of social bonding, closed schools and colleges, changes to their part-time or casual work, and the emotional stability that often comes with age.

At the same time, those participants highly prone to ruminating on the pandemic, or constantly discussing it with others also seemed to have worse mental health - as did those who reported greater social strain within the house, or less social support from friends and family.

In fact, the authors note, social strain was the strongest and most consistent predictor of stress, anxiety and depression by far.

Obviously, it's hard to surround yourself with people you like when you're stuck in quarantine. But calling a friend or spending time chatting online with a family member might help somewhat. A recent sift through the United Kingdom biobank found regular socialising could help reduce depression risks.

MacGeorge also recommends focusing on the future, the positives, and those around you.

In a pandemic, research among Chinese college students suggests social support is a great way to boost your mental health.

"Things like keeping a consistent schedule, reminding yourself that things will get better, finding activities to distract yourself, and taking care of others who need help are all helpful," MacGeorge adds.

"Additionally, adhering to the national recommendations for protecting oneself from COVID-19, like hand-washing, social distancing and masking, was also associated with better mental health."

By the end of the study, despite the pandemic merely picking up steam, participants were generally feeling better than they had been at the beginning.

The authors say that by this time, the cohort had probably processed the pandemic and come to terms with the uncertainty. National guidelines during these weeks also improved, and adherence to such rules helped to reduce stress in each and every survey taken.

Still, that downward trend doesn't mean we're in the clear. These surveys stopped well before a summer of racial reckoning, widespread wildfires and thick smoke, and a rapidly rising death toll from COVID-19. Not to mention a heated upcoming national election.

"There is reason to believe that the mental health impacts of the continuing pandemic will be stronger than they appeared in our study in May," MacGeorge warns, "especially for people who have lost loved ones, who are now out of work, or who have suffered racial prejudice and discrimination."

Wash your hands, wear a mask, talk to a loved one. Above all, look after yourself.

The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.