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Managing stress during the COVID-19 pandemic

Are you feeling stress, fear and anxiety amid the COVID-19 pandemic? If so, you’re not alone. The recommendations for social distancing affect nearly every part of our lives, including finances, relationships, transportation, jobs and healthcare.

Some common causes of stress during the coronavirus pandemic are uncertainty, lack of routine and reduced social support, says Mark Flanagan, LMSW, MPH, MA, a social worker at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont.

Routines and COVID-19

As humans, we don’t like uncertainty and tend to thrive in routines, says Flanagan. Routines are essential because they create a sense of normalcy and control in our lives. This sense of control then allows us to manage the challenges that come our way. 

“When we don’t have a routine, much our time is spent trying to establish one,” says Flanagan. “Without a routine, we often pay attention to the things that are most ‘flashy.’ When big news happens, we tend to focus on it more.”

Social support and COVID-19

Not only are our routines currently disrupted, but the routines of everyone around us are as well.

“When something goes wrong in our lives, we can usually rely on others to get a sense of calm,” he says. “But when everyone is experiencing the same sense of uncertainty, there’s no real ‘anchor’ to help manage some of the stress.” 

Stress affects your health

Stress management is essential for good physical health, and it’s especially important right now as our world addresses the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While short-term pressures and stress are normal and can help us change in positive ways, chronic stress causes a huge deterioration in our quality of life on a physical level,” says Flanagan. “When we are more pessimistic, depressed or anxious, our immune system goes down and produces more stress hormones, reducing our immunity and increasing inflammation.”

Stress can also put a strain on your mental health, relationships and productivity, he notes.

Stress reduction tips for COVID-19

“Rather than dwell on nervousness, focus on the things you can control,” Flanagan suggests. “When you move the locus of control from something outside yourself to inside yourself, you powerfully reduce anxiety and boost confidence.”

He suggests the following steps to regain control and reduce stress.

Follow the recommended health guidelines. These guidelines include frequent hand-washing, social distancing, practicing respiratory etiquette and cleaning commonly used surfaces. See the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Not only will you protect your health, but you’ll also protect the health of vulnerable people in your community, like older adults and those with serious or underlying health issues.

Create a morning routine. When you’re stuck at home, it can be tempting to let go of basic routines, but Flanagan says a morning routine can help you feel more productive and positive. Consider waking up at the same time each day, exercising, showering, meditating, journaling, tidying your home or having a healthy breakfast as part of your morning ritual.

Check in with loved ones regularly. While social distancing is essential to slow the spread of the virus, you can still check in with family and friends by phone, video chat, text or email.

Consider ways to help others. This can include picking up groceries for a neighbor and leaving them at their door, donating to a local charity, or purchasing gift cards from your favorite restaurant. By taking the focus off yourself, you can experience reduced stress and a greater sense of well-being.

Have a daily self-care ritual. Self-care can include exercise, meditation, walking outside, reading, taking a bubble bath, painting, journaling, gardening, cooking a healthy meal or enjoying a favorite hobby. Pick one thing and do it at the same time each day. It will help anchor your day and provide a welcome respite.

Limit news and media consumption. “When we constantly check our newsfeeds and see bad news, it activates our sympathetic nervous system and can send us into fight-or-flight mode,” says Flanagan. He recommends limiting how often you check the news to once or twice a day (ideally not first thing morning or after dinner), turning off news alerts, and obtaining information from one or two reputable news outlets.

Set boundaries around social media. “There’s this concept of toxic sociality where we constantly have to be connected, even in superficial ways, and when we’re not, it feels like part of us isn’t being ‘fed,’” he explains. “It’s important to practice social distancing with social media too. We may not think we’re having any effect on our newsfeed, but we can take steps to reduce the ripple effect of panic on social media.” He suggests posting positive messages online and being mindful of your likes, shares and comments. 

Meditate. Meditation can help restore your sense of control as you focus on your breath or a positive word or phrase. Meditation can help you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and that’s an antidote to fear,” says Flanagan. “And when you’re more centered, you’re able to create a calm reality around you.” Try this guided meditation to get started. 

Encourage others. “Often, when we are scared, it can be tempting to repeat negative messages, but actively encouraging family and friends is really important,” he says. “Chances are, someone is having a harder time than you are. Your words matter and people will respond accordingly. It’s important to realize we are not victims; we are helping to create our environment and change it for the better. By sending positive messages out into the world, you’ll not only affect those around you, but those words will come back to you.”

Hope during the coronavirus pandemic

“It’s important to remember that this will pass sooner or later,” says Flanagan. “The world has gone through many different challenges, like disease outbreaks, war and uncertain times. For better or worse, these times always pass. That doesn’t mean this time isn’t significantly challenging, but if we focus on what we can control and do things that are good for our health and the health of those around us, we will come out of this in perhaps a more whole state and with a renewed perspective. It’s important to look toward the future and begin building for that future. You can always have hope. Hope never leaves us.”

For information on coronavirus (COVID-19), including symptoms, risks and ways to protect yourself, click here.

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