8 Tips for Coping With Coronavirus Stress, From Mental Health Experts
The COVID-19 pandemic is stressful no matter what aspect you're looking at: overrun ICUs, permanent WFH situations, wearing a mask wherever you go. But even though we're hopefully nearing the end (thank you, science, for multiple safe vaccines) you've likely still got some lingering anxiety regarding *gestures* all of this.
First off: Know you're not alone in experiencing a higher-than-usual stress level as a direct result of the coronavirus: According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), about 40% of US adults said "worry or stress related to coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health"—including 12% who said it's had a "major impact." And, unfortunately, women seem to be bearing the brunt of COVID-19 stress (46% say the pandemic has impacted their mental health, versus 33% of men), as do those in urban and suburban areas.
Luckily, there are some steps you can take to soothe your mind. Here, mental health experts share their best tips on how to cope with coronavirus stress.
1. Answer any what-ifs
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to ask questions we'd never previously considered: What if I lose my job? What if I get sick? What if a loved one gets sick? It can feel impossible not to think about these hypotheticals, given the scale of the pandemic. But you can actually use these what-ifs to your advantage, Shannon O'Neill, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, tells Health. Answering your questions can help you establish plans you never thought you needed. If you know exactly who you'd call and exactly where you'd go if you did get very sick, this might help you feel less nervous about the hypothetical scenario.
2. Differentiate the workday from the rest of the day
The pandemic has stripped many of us of our routine, drastically changing the way we do our jobs. During the first week you worked from home, it might have been nice to wear sweatpants or leggings every day, not having to bother with business casual to work from your couch. But dressing the way you used to might help to restore a sense of normalcy to this decidedly not normal time, Dr. O'Neill says, adding that this can enhance structure by helping you differentiate the workday from everything else you're doing at home during quarantine.
Another tip: End the workday with a "virtual commute" by clearing your head for a few minutes after you've sent your last email of the day, the way you would on your walk, drive, or bus ride home from work each day. This can be as simple as watching a TV clip or reading a few pages of a book, and focusing on nothing else for however long your normal commute would be.
3. Monitor how much time you spend on the news
The news can alway—but perhaps especially during a pandemic—be frightening. "This is how the news works, giving us the hard and fast truth," Dr. O'Neill says. That truth during the COVID-19 pandemic, with death tolls going up daily and millions suffering financially, can instill fear. Which is why it's important to make sure you aren't obsessing over the news 24/7. An easy way to do this (without totally detaching yourself from reality) is by setting a time each day to catch up on the news. The key here is putting your phone down and/or turning your TV off once that allotted time is over, and not returning to the news until the following day.
4. Focus on what you can control
The pandemic has forced many people to come to grips with how much control they have over situation—particularly what they can and can't do. "We can't wave a magic wand and make the coronavirus disappear. We have to focus on things we do have power over vs. we don't," Susan Albers, PsyD, a psychiatrist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health.
If you, like many, worry about getting exposed to the coronavirus every time you leave your house, try changing your focus to what you can do rather than what you have no control over. For instance, you can stay six feet from others, you can wear a mask, and you can stay home as much as possible to avoid unnecessary contact.
5. Stay present
Looking back on seemingly less complicated times is a recipe for bumming yourself out, Dr. Albers says. When you compare what your life looks like now, during quarantine, to what your life looked like in January of last year, there's a solid chance you'll get at least a little bit sad thinking about pre-pandemic life. "Stop comparing, [and] keep moving forward," Dr. Albers advises.
6. Look for good news
While the big stories of the COVID-19 pandemic have been extremely sad, there have been silver linings over the past eight months of quarantine—and they look different for everybody: Some people have been able to spend more time with their families, others have focused more on self-care during quarantine. Whatever your personal circumstances have been, Dr. Albers says, it's crucial to look for (and focus on) the good, rather than the bad.
7. Be patient with yourself
This is important to do each and every day, but it's extra important during the COVID-19 pandemic. We're all learning how to live by a new set of rules and trying to cope with the underlying fear of getting sick with a newly-discovered virus. In case this wasn't obvious, it's essential that you be forgiving of yourself during this time. "This is definitely a marathon rather than a sprint. Just being as patient and kind to ourselves as possible is important," Dr. O'Neill says. Try not to be too hard on yourself when you don't finish everything on your to-do list or simply don't feel like tuning into that zoom happy hour.
Don't underestimate resting, exercising, and eating nutritious foods
There's a reason doctors of all types are always harping about these three aspects of your life—getting enough movement, adequate sleep, and eating foods that give you energy—it's because they work to keep both your mental and physical self as healthy as possible. "This is something that goes without saying," Dr. O'Neill says. Establishing routines around these three lifestyle habits can help you find some normalcy during this tumultuous time, she explains. These also fall into the category of "things you can control" so they're truly a win-win.
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