11 Steps to Managing the Stress Associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic

Our lives have changed immensely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing has created the perfect storm for creating a mental health crisis due to the related isolation. Despite the effect on our mental health, we know that keeping our distance from others has the potential to save many lives and is a necessary evil during this time.

Research shows that isolation can lead to mental health concerns1, 2.  I have created a list of 11 steps to help you manage the stress associated with isolation.  Each of these steps should be placed into your regular daily routine to see a positive outcome.

Step #1: Keep a consistent sleep schedule.

Since we no longer have to wake up early to make sure we make it to work on time, our sleep schedules have changed. We go to sleep and wake up much later. To help with this, it is important to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day to maintain a regular schedule.

If you find yourself having a hard time falling asleep at night, try using diaphragmatic (deep) breathing and progressive muscle relation. Deep breathing can be used to divert your attention from your stress and worry and focus on something calming and soothing. Progressive muscle relaxation can be used to help you decrease the physical symptoms associated with anxiety such as muscle tension. Without good sleep, managing other aspects of your life is bound to be much harder.

This pandemic has triggered anxiety in many individuals. At times, anxiety can cause us to wake up in the middle of the night with uncontrollable worry. If this should happen to you, after 20 minutes of lying in bed with worries or thoughts, get out of bed and sit in a quiet and dark area until you feel tired. Once you feel tired, go back to bed and allow yourself to fall asleep. Should you have a difficult time falling back asleep again, repeat the aforementioned step until it works. The key to this is to train your body that your bed is for sleep, not worry.

Step #2: Maintain your hygiene.

I am not surprised at all by the number of memes out there making jokes about not showering and wearing the same sweatpants for several days. Although it is completely normal to want to relax in your PJs all day on a Saturday or Sunday, decreasing showering and caring for your regular hygiene can worsen, if not trigger symptoms of low mood and anxiety. I want to encourage each of you during this time to shower or bathe at least every other day and limit the amount you are wearing your PJs outside normal sleep time. Our minds and bodies follow the signals we are giving them, and our body needs to know that it is still a temple, despite not having to show off its beauty to the public.

Step #3: Make a designated work area.

Most of us were thrown into working remotely with little to no prior experience. Some have tiny apartments with limited space or roommates, which prevents them from having an ideal at-home office. No matter if you live in a big home or a tiny apartment, it is important to work from the same area each day. Once your work is finished, clean up the space to help trigger your mind into recognizing the day is over and that you can relax. This will limit the number of visual triggers you will have to extend work hours beyond what is realistic and train your mind to have a solid start and finish to the day.

Make sure you have the right equipment. Working full time from laptops can be cumbersome. Now may be the best time to find a proper desk, monitor, and/or mouse. Ask your company if they are willing to expense these purchases to assist you in working from home if you don’t want to spend your own money. The right equipment will help you work with more ease and subsequently spare you any unneeded stress.

Step # 4: What you eat still matters.

A time of high stress can be a major trigger for people to overuse food as a comfort. If you find yourself seeking food each time you feel stress, you maybe exacerbating your binge eating disorder or starting one. I encourage you to find other ways to soothe yourself from stress such as calling a friend, practicing mindfulness, or listening to soothing music.

It is also important to monitor the type of food you are consuming. What we eat is either breaking down our immune system or building it up. Moments of bingeing on unhealthy food can not only lead to feelings of low mood, shame, and guilt, it can weaken the one thing that we really need right now, which is a strong immune system. So, when making food decisions, ask yourself, Is this making my immune system stronger or weaker? Decreasing sugars and grains while maintaining a healthy diet of protein, veggies, and fats will help your body stay equipped to manage any attacks from viruses and help manage your mental health. 

Step #5: Get moving!

I keep hearing, How in the world are we supposed to exercise when the gyms are closed, and I can’t see my favorite workout buddy due to social distancing? The answer is simple: work out at home or go outside for a nice run or walk (yes, wear a mask if you do this). There are many free yoga videos on Amazon Prime and countless videos on YouTube to watch. Physical activity can also strengthen your immune system and give you those feel-good hormones to boost your mood and confidence to get you through this time of isolation.

Step #6: Do something fun!

We all have that home project that we have been itching to get to, but just have not had the time. Give yourself a sense of accomplishment by taking the time to fix or organize something. If it is not fixing something in your house, is there a game you have been wanting to play, plants you’ve been wanting to grow, or a puzzle you have wanted to complete? Either way, now is the time to throw yourself into a new hobby to get you through this pandemic. Develop mastery in a new project or hobby.

Step #7: Connect with your friends and family.

I went for a walk about a week into this period of isolation and I saw someone sitting on their front porch. I yelled over to them, “Oh my God, it’s another face!” We both laughed because seeing other people has become a rarity. This is why connecting with our friends and family using any video conferencing can help you have time with friends and eat dinner with family. We can still do so much of this using these platforms to help give us a sense of normalcy.

I also want to encourage those of you who have loved ones or friends who are in the elderly community to reach out them. The elderly community is the most isolated group of people right now, due to them being high risk. They really need to be supported right now. In other words, take time to call Grandma or Grandpa; you know they always appreciate those calls. =)

Step #8: Monitor your substance use.

Alcohol and drugs are frequently used to help people cope with the stress of their daily lives and to help the “wind-down” after a long day. Alcohol sales across the USA have skyrocketed and this is a concerning time for those who are at risk to fall or relapse into substance misuse. If you are finding yourself using substances more regularly to help you monitor your stress levels, consider reaching out to a mental health provider, Alcoholics Anonymous, or Narcotics Anonymous if you feel like you are struggling. If you notice you are using your drug of choice more frequently than normal, try setting a weekly limit. If that limit is being surpassed, then again, call your mental health provider and go to a meeting. Many 12-step programs are offering virtual meetings. Check out Alcoholics Anonymous (https://www.aa.org/) or Narcotics Anonymous (https://www.na.org/) if you want more information. If you are in the Chicagoland area, please see https://www.chicagoaa.org/ for more information.

Step #9: Limit screen time.

This is a tough one right now. It is important to stay connected and informed about the news, but is it increasing your anxiety to an unhealthy level? What we read and watch shapes how we think and feel. We need to monitor the amount of “screen garbage” that is going into our eyes to prevent it from rotting our minds. In addition to it affecting your mental health, too much screen time can also interfere with your ability to maintain a regular sleep schedule.

Step #10: Remember that this too shall pass.

This can feel like a nightmare that just won’t end. Each of us feels a lot of different emotions related to all of this uncertainty. Once we give ourselves space to grieve, we need to remind ourselves that this will end and that although life maybe different after this, we will move on like we always have and adjust to the new way of doing things. There is still hope for a better future.

Step #11: If you are having a hard time with these steps on your own, reach out to a mental health provider.

All of these steps are much easier said than done. If you need some help right now getting you through this time, do not be afraid to reach out for a little extra support. We as mental health providers are trained on how to help people through difficult times in life. Please feel free to ask us anything you would like to know about these steps at info@healthylifechicago.com. If you would like to request an appointment, click the link below. Stay safe and healthy!

References

  1. Wang, J., Lloyd-Evans, B., Giacco, D., Forsyth, R., Nebo, C., Mann, F., & Johnson, S. (2017). Social isolation in mental health: a conceptual and methodological review. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology52(12), 1451-1461.
  2. Kawachi, I., & Berkman, L. F. (2001). Social ties and mental health. Journal of Urban health78(3), 458-467.