5 Ways to Manage Stress During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Tips for preventing a mental meltdown
man running alone down a city street

As the events surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak unfold, it’s understandable that you might begin to feel increasing stress.

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Information is rapidly changing and can be confusing, overwhelming and even scary. You may experience fear and spikes in anxiety. But even if you’re managing your anxiety levels well, there’s still so much more to deal with.

Whether it’s dealing with at-risk family members or patients, a roller coaster economy, trying to juggle work, keeping kids occupied or homeschooling while schools are closed, or simply adjusting to a new, unfamiliar situation, stress can easily pile up and negatively impact you — both physically and mentally. 

Clinical psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD, ABPP, stresses the importance of planning coping activities. “America is the engine of ingenuity,” she says. “Let’s be innovative. This is a time where we can really be creative and come up positive coping skills.”  

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5 steps for managing your stress

Exercise regularly. While gyms are closed and social distancing guidelines are in place, it’s still possible to get in aerobic exercise, like walking, running, hiking or playing with your kids/pets, all can help release endorphins (natural substances that help you feel better and maintain a positive attitude). And there are other exercises you can do in the comfort of your own home. Dr. Sullivan recommends yoga and stretching as one way to both exercise your body and calm your mind and it’s easy to do by yourself

Maintain a healthy diet. Stress can adversely affect both your eating habits and your metabolism. The best way to combat stress or emotional eating is to be mindful of what triggers stress eating and to be ready to fight the urge. “If you are someone who is prone to emotional eating, know your triggers, know what stresses you out and be prepared,” Dr. Sullivan says. Keeping healthy snacks on hand will help nourish your body, arming yourself nutritionally to better deal with your stress. “Helping to regulate your blood sugar throughout the day is going to keep your body stable and your emotions on a much better playing field,” Dr. Sullivan says.

Take a break. “As humans we want control over our lives and in this situation, so we have to learn to manage lack of control,” says Dr. Sullivan. While it’s important to stay informed of the latest news and developments, the evolving nature of the news can get overwhelming. Find a balance of exposure to news that works for you. This is particularly important for our children. We need to limit their exposure to the media and provide age-appropriate information to them. Whenever reasonably possible, disconnect physically and mentally. Play with puzzles, a board game, do a treasure hunt, tackle a project, reorganize something, or start a new book that is unrelated to coronavirus coverage. 

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Connect with others. “I can’t stress enough how important connection is during times of uncertainty and fear,” Dr. Sullivan says. “Fear and isolation can lead to depression and anxiety. We need to make a point to connect with others regularly.” Reach out to family members, friends and colleagues regularly via phone, text, FaceTime or other virtual platforms. Make sure that you are checking on those that are alone. Check in regularly with your parents, grandparents and your children.

Get sleep and rest. The ever-changing news environment can create a lot of stress, stress that gets amplified when you don’t get enough sleep. It’s especially important now to get the recommended amount of sleep to help you stay focused on work and on managing the stress the current outbreak can bring. Dr. Sullivan recommends avoiding stimulants like alcohol, caffeine and nicotine before bed. If you still find yourself too stressed to sleep, consider developing a new pre-bedtime routine, including a long bath or a cup of caffeine-free herbal tea. And planning for tomorrow earlier in your day can help alleviate stress related to what’s to come. 

Following these steps to manage stress and add a sense of normalcy can go a long way to help you cope with the ever-changing environment and help keep those around you, especially children, calm and focused. If you are not able to manage your anxiety or depression on your own, reach out to a behavioral medicine provider for an in-person or virtual visit. “Take care of yourself and others around you,” says Dr. Sullivan.

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