Just like that, within the blink of an eye, our world as we know it has changed. I know over the past week I have had a few times where I thought I would wake up and this would all just be a bad dream. Then, I turn on the news or go on my social media and reality hits again. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought us all much to worry about. What if I get infected? What if a loved one gets infected? How will I adapt to working from home? How will I adapt to having no work? Will I earn enough this month to pay my rent or mortgage? How will social distancing and being home with my spouse all day, every day, impact my strained marriage? How am I going to make sure my children are completing their schoolwork while my spouse and I work full time from home? Where can I find some toilet paper?
The worries and concerns could go on and on and on.
However, there is one universal question that we are all asking around the globe: “when will my life go back to normal?” The answer to that is not known at this time. And, unfortunately, with uncertainty and ambiguity comes anxiety.
We are all feeling the stress, myself included. While we can’t control the stress that happens to us, we do get to decide how we are going to respond to it and manage it.
Here are 6 strategies for managing stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic:
1. Limit social media use and spend a few minutes every day practicing mindfulness. Pay attention to where your negative mental chatter is coming from. Right now, our social media and news outlets are covered in stories about COVID-19. There is no doubt that there is no way to escape this unless we completely unplug, or at the very least, limit our exposure to it. At any given moment, if you turn on the news right now, you will be exposed to lots of fear-inducing coverage. When we see this, our stress responses in our brain have difficulties distinguishing between what is actually happening and what is being presented to us. As a result, the brain sets forth a series of chemical reactions that signals our bodies to prepare for “fight or flight.” When we are taking this information in from the comfort of our homes, these chemical responses have nowhere to go besides cycling through our body. However, in a real-life emergency situation there is an opportunity to act on the adrenaline rushing through you by either running away from the threat or fighting the threat. In that case, the stress energy is discharged and released and your body will return back to a calm state.
The first step to changing our thinking is to limit exposure to social media and the news.
Next, you will want to pay attention to your thoughts and how your body is processing information. Are your thoughts becoming more anxious? Are you thinking through every worst-case scenario? Is your heart beating faster? Are you panicking?
If you find yourself getting worked up, take a break and stop reading or watching. Walk away from the device or TV and move your body so that you can complete the stress cycle. Be mindful of your thoughts, practice deep breathing, and repeat a reassuring statement to yourself such as, “I can handle whatever comes my way” or “This is temporary. This too shall pass.”
Mindfulness is another strategy that can help reduce negative thinking. Through practicing mindfulness, we become more aware of our bodies and minds and practice staying in the “here and now.” Generally, when we engage in these activities, we are allowing our thoughts and feelings to happen without placing judgment on them. Research has shown that mindfulness can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and can have a positive impact on the brain. Some studies have shown that there has been a decrease in the size of the amygdala, the region of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, through regularly practicing mindfulness.
There are several apps to consider that have guided activities related to mindfulness. These apps will help you to practice deep breathing and help with managing overall stress. Some of the more popular mindfulness apps include Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer. Headspace is currently offering a free subscription to all healthcare providers. When signing up the only thing you need to provide is your NPI number!
In summary, be sure to limit your social media use and pay attention to your thoughts. Distract yourself when thoughts become overwhelming. Increase deep breathing and mindfulness activities to help free yourself from your negative thoughts.
2. Debunk the myths. Get informed. Remember, knowledge is power! Through our navigation of media, we may come across resources that are not accurate and invoke feelings of fear. Consider the source. Through accessing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I read up on some facts on COVID-19 and debunked some myths and isolated stories I read on social media. For instance, one fact they address on their website is that for most people the immediate risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 is relatively low. Older adults and people with serious underlying medical conditions are at a higher risk for more serious complications from the virus. There were also facts on their website related to simple ways you can keep yourself and others healthy.
3. Maintain normalcy and routine as much as possible. When we don’t have a routine, more decisions must be made, and this can be a major distraction that contributes to more feelings of being overwhelmed and anxious for both adults and children. A simple place to start is to reflect on your routine before COVID-19. Maintain your same sleep/wake cycles. Continue eating your meals around the same time that you did before.
Continue getting ready for work and dressing professionally even if you are only working out of your home office. For those working from home, consider designating a personal work space in your home. Create a schedule for yourself and/or your kids to increase engagement at work and/or school. In regards to working with children at home, little ones still need predictability and structure. To decrease distractions, set timers for your kids to indicate to them when you will be available to help them with schoolwork. For elementary students, it could be 30 minutes of work followed by 10 minute breaks to offer assistance to your children. Depending on ability, older children in middle and high school may work more independently with appropriate guidelines and parameters in place. For these older students, check in with them in the morning and review with them what tasks they will be expected to accomplish throughout the day. Their accountability will increase because they expect that you will be checking in with them throughout the day.
Also, continue your exercise routine even if your local gym has closed. Many gyms are offering free or low-cost workouts online that you can do from home at this time. If you find yourself getting anxious or stressed, consider limiting your use of caffeine and alcohol as these have been known to contribute to symptoms of anxiety.
4. Remind yourself of what you can control and what you can’t control. Schools are closing. People are losing jobs. Employers are asking employees to work from home. The meat department shelves at grocery stores are empty. Weddings are being cancelled or postponed. People are engaging in risky behaviors and not adhering to the guidelines set forth by the CDC. Life still goes on and much of what is happening is out of our control. Truthfully, did we ever have control over any of these things anyways? While none of us can change this stressful event that is happening to us, we are able to control how we respond and interpret it. We are in control of our behavior and the conscious, deliberate choices we make. We do control our emotions and how we manage our stress. We do control our thoughts and how we process them.
5. Increase social connection. Social distancing can certainly increase feelings of isolation and loneliness which contributes to symptoms of depression and anxiety. We can still interact with others; however, the ways in which we go about it are different now. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), only seven percent of communication is through words, 38 percent is through voice, and 55 percent is accomplished through body language and visual. That said, lack of face time can be challenging but there is something we can do about it. There are ways to connect with family and friends virtually through platforms such as Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts. I have heard of many stories in the past week of birthday celebrations and baby showers still continuing through Skype. I had a virtual dinner with my family through Zoom on Sunday night and the conversation and laughter was still there even though we were not physically present with one another. Reach out to your parents and elderly family members who may need help through this difficult time. Through helping others, we are increasing the production of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain that reduce stress and anxiety. That said, do you have a collection of face masks and gloves at home? Consider donating them to a local hospital in need.
6. Keep a journal and remember to include what you are grateful for. Writing in a personal journal can be a healthy outlet for releasing pent up emotions and stress. These are unprecedented times and hopefully this is something we will never have to experience again in our lifetimes. Document the struggle so that you can share them with your children or grandchildren one day. Write down what you are worried about but also what you are doing to address these concerns. Visualize what your life will be like after this pandemic and write about it. Also, don’t forget to write about what you are thankful for. Even in the worst of times, there is still beauty in this world. Reflect on the simpler things in life that bring you peace and joy.
World, we are going to make it through this! Be safe and be well everyone!
If you or a loved one is having difficulties coping with stress and anxiety brought on by COVID-19, feel free to click here to send me a message or call me at (813) 501-2703. I am exclusively providing teletherapy sessions to current and new clients until further notice. I am committed to providing continuing care to the Tampa Bay community.
Shannon Schell, LMHC