Most of us have learned that whenever threats occur, we all have a biologically built-in stress reaction that is commonly referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response. We instinctually try to escape the threat or attack it. With the coronavirus (COVID-19) we cannot do either. This reaction, which includes a host of physical, emotional, and mental effects, has protective survival value in short-term threats, but unfortunately fight-or-flight reactions can do damage to our body and mind under chronic threats like the current pandemic. As such, we all have to be proactive in buffering ourselves from these detrimental effects over the months to come in order to maintain our resilience.
First, we have to understand how normal our stress reactions are before we can begin to short circuit any damage. All of us have two powerful emotional needs that are being challenged at this time. We all need a sense of predictability in our life so we know what to expect. Without this we get anxious or fearful and even irritable and angry (fight-or-flight). We also need a sense of control which is blocked in many ways by the current restrictions, which are necessary in combating a pandemic. If we lose that feeling of control, we can eventually start feeling helpless or even depressed. So, anxiety and depressed feelings are normal under these circumstances, but some of the steps listed below are aimed at buffering yourself from these reactions over time.
HERE ARE SOME RECOMMENDATIONS TO HELP GET THROUGH THE WEEKS TO COME
1) First, recognize that in this situation you are having normal reactions to an abnormal event, and that you do not have to stay in a state of denial to get through this. Maintain your self-awareness and if you see yourself getting physically distressed, anxious, or depressed, look at it as a signal that it’s time to do something to feel better. Maintaining awareness will serve as a reminder to do some of the remaining steps.
2) Do something to diffuse some of the physical tension that builds with chronic stress. Take a minute or two to take slow deep breaths throughout the day. If you do any type of mindful meditation or yoga, practice those as well. If you would like someone to talk you through a relaxation or mindful meditation exercise to decrease your tension, you can visit our Audio Relaxation Methods page for some easy 5-minute audio exercises. Going for a walk, a bike ride, or using a video exercise program can all decrease your physical tension. These physical steps also help re-build your sense of control.
(See Dr. Sameet Kumar’s concise summary of some key initial steps on YouTube: Sameet Kumar)
3) Being quarantined or sheltering in place is necessary to minimize your health risk and to avoid spreading the virus outside your home. However, this is a major disruption of your daily routines and it can add to your stress. To help cope with these changes, which could last for many weeks, try to build in a new structure to your day. This might provide opportunities to use the extra time saved from not having a daily commute so you can do other things at home with family or remotely with friends.
4) Much of the media is understandably focused on the COVID-19 threat, and we might find ourselves spending too much time watching news reports that are available 24/7. In these times we want to be informed, which is crucial, but too much news coverage can be detrimental. Try not to get addicted to the news reports but do stay informed within healthy limits. Many psychologists would recommend no more than 30-60 minutes per day.
5) Be proactive in your daily activities. This means take control of the things you can change and accept the things that are beyond your control. It might sound silly, but washing your hands, sanitizing your environment, and keeping social distances are all proactive and healthy physically as well as psychologically. If you have a specific problem and you can resolve it, take active steps to correct it. If your refrigerator is getting empty and you do not want to go to the grocery store, use one of the delivery services. If you are working from home and have young children there, try to work out a schedule with family members to share child-care time. This can help you compartmentalize work and child-care duties. If you cannot solve a practical problem on your own, talk to trusted friends who can not only listen and provide moral support, but might also see some options you did not see. Staying connected on various social media platforms can be helpful as well. Keep in mind that proactive coping styles improve your immune system.
6) Our stress can be very noticeable to others, including our children. It is important to communicate with children as long as it is age appropriate. School age children of all ages know that this is a unique situation because they are not going to school. Parents will need to help them balance their home studies with their need to have structure and fun in their daily routines. This will be a challenge for them and you, so try to set some steps in place early on so they know what to expect. This will be more complicated for teens and young adults living at home. They might want to be out socializing with their friends, which you might not want them to do because their friends could be carriers of the virus. Depending on the health status of everyone living in your house, as well as your own anxiety about the health risks you can tolerate, you will need to get agreement from all older children as to what is necessary until the health risks are well under control in your community.
SOME OTHER QUICK REMINDERS
- In your daily structure, do positive self-care activities like taking a long shower, eating a meal with your family, wearing comfy cloths at home if you are sheltering in place.
- Keep busy, especially if you have some fun activities to fill in your schedule. If you are bored, do some de-cluttering so your environment looks better every day.
- As indicated above, limit TV news coverage about the pandemic to less than an hour per day. In line with this, avoid movies like Contagion or any other depressing movies, which easily could increase your stress. If you are going to watch TV, look for light fare so you can have a little reprieve from stress for a while.
- Look for old or new enjoyable things to do like playing board games, taking care of your pets, or engaging in an old hobby.
- Check in by phone or online with family and friends, especially if you have not talked to them recently, to see how they are doing. This is likely to be helpful to them as well as you.
- It cannot be emphasized that it will help your resilience if you practice some daily mindful meditation or relaxation methods each day as well as using your focused breathing exercises throughout the day.
If the stress is too high or you are prone to anxiety or depression, we encourage you to take extra self-care steps. Check out other information on our website. If you have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) at work, definitely consider this as an option to get professional help since EAPs often provide free counseling services.
Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.