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Responding to Stress During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in humans, which is a natural response to stress.

For example, if a bear comes charging at you, you’re first reaction may be to either run, fight it off, or freeze up and do absolutely nothing! This natural response is known as the “fight-or-flight” phenomenon. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has a lot of individuals under a fair amount of stress. For many, our ordinary lives have been turned upside down. Whether you are working in a new environment (or not working at all), caring for children and family members while confined to your home (with limited access to regular activities), or just living with the fear of the unknown. The uncertainty is unsettling, and rightfully so.

The fight-or-flight system focuses on things that happen quickly, are uncommon, feel out of our control, or seem likely to hurt us in serious or scary ways. The threat of COVID-19 is causing many of the same feelings leading us to feel anxious, afraid and overwhelmed. COVID-19 is not an imagined danger, the risks are real, but fight or flight-driven thinking can lead to decisions that won’t keep us safer and may make things worse.

Below are some common signs you may be dealing with stress or anxiety. Once you are aware of your current symptoms of stress, you can then focus on ways to cope more efficiently and healthily.

  • Behavioral

    A change in energy levels, increased use of alcohol/drug use, excessively worrying, frequently crying, irritability and/or frequent anger outbursts, wanting to be alone;

  • Physical

    Stomach issues including stomach aches and diarrhea, frequent headaches, appetite gain/loss; sweating or having chills;

  • Emotional

    Feeling anxious, fearful, depressed, anger, overwhelmed, sadness, or not caring at all;

  • Cognitive

    Forgetfulness, confusion; having trouble concentrating on tasks at hand, difficulty making decisions.

Recognizing and understanding your stress responses can help you to manage this uncertain time in a better way. Here are a few tips:

  • Focus on what you can control

    A lot is going on in the world that you cannot control, however, by focusing on the things that you can may help to calm your nerves. Try keeping things in perspective. There may be a lot going wrong in the world right now, but what’s going right in your world?

  • Limit Social Media

    Set a limit for how much time you spend on social media per day. It’s good to stay aware, but may not be useful to overindulge. Also, make sure you’re following credible resources. Not all sources are relaying trustworthy information and it can be easy to get caught up in “fake news” stories. Trusted sources include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, local public health authorities and local healthcare providers.

  • Take care of your body: There are multiple ways to accomplish this.

    • Exercise regularly

      Aim for at least 30 minutes a day. Get outside for a walk, put on a workout video, or just dance! Any sort of physical activity that gets your body moving and blood pumping will be helpful and will make you feel better.

    • Eat a healthy diet

      Stress can lead to an increased intake of unhealthy, highly processed foods that mainly contain unhealthy fats, lots of salt, and high sugar content. It’s always important to focus on healthy eating habits, but now so more than ever to help support a healthy immune system. It’s best to eat balanced meals with a lot of variety to ensure you’re getting a lot of vitamins and nutrients. Focus on fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy carbohydrates, and staying hydrated. Limit excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol.

    • Don’t forget sleep

      Getting a good night’s rest can be a powerful stress reducer. Aim for at least 7+ hours of good quality sleep per night. If you’re currently having issues with sleep, try creating a relaxing bedtime routine, writing thoughts down in a journal before bed, and making your sleep environment as comfortable as possible.

  • Take care of your mind

    Spend some time each day to focus on yourself. This can include things like meditation, prayer, exercise, deep breathing techniques, listening to music or podcasts, talking to a friend, etc.

  • Practice social distancing

    This means being physically distant from others (at least 6 feet apart), not emotionally distant. Stay connected with loved ones through emails, phone calls, texting, and video chats. Physical distancing is necessary to help keep us safe, but social connectedness will help with our emotional state.

  • Practice daily gratitude

    Practicing gratitude can help put things into perspective. Think of at least 3 things that you are grateful for and write them down. Review them daily to keep yourself reminded that not all is bad right in the world right now.

To learn more about addressing and managing stress, check out this article on 7 Ways to Support Mental Health in the Workplace.