How to Handle the Emotional Rollercoaster of Coronavirus Stress

An expert weighs in on how to maneuver the ups and downs
corona roller coaster of emotions

The ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been a whirlwind of evolving information, flattened curves and spikes, mask policies and shifting hotspots. It’s been an exhausting several months and, despite recent successes in vaccine trials, it’s going to stretch on even longer based on the new surge in cases. 

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While the idea of a long-term fight against the coronavirus — and, consequently, long-term social distancing guidelines — doesn’t rattle some, many of us have found ourselves tired and a little queasy feeling from the topsy-turvy emotional roller coaster of the pandemic so far.

The good news, though, is there are ways to manage this coronavirus stress, your emotional health and your physical health while the pandemic stretches on for, well, who knows how long? And with a tough winter where healthcare providers will be dealing both with the coronavirus and seasonal influenza just starting, being able to navigate the emotional ups and downs will be important. 

We spoke with psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD about how to prepare yourself for the long haul and how to let yourself get carried away by the wild ride that is the coronavirus pandemic. 

Understanding the stress

It’s important to understand that our bodies — and minds — aren’t really made to handle something long-term like this pandemic and the associated pandemic stress. 

“Usually if you have a stressor, it probably means you’re stressed out for the day or, at most, maybe a week,” says Dr. Albers. “But prolonged periods of stress for months and months, it’s just not how we’re wired.” 

And that stress takes its toll, according to Dr. Albers: “Typically, when we see somebody who has an intense amount of stress for months and months, you start to see it wear down their body and they become ill or tired or fatigued.”

Changes to routines, whether it’s a new work or childcare situation, only compounds the stress. “We’re creatures of habit and routine,” Dr. Albers points out. “When something throws us a curveball, many of us feel like that’s an added piece of stress because we resist change.”

She continues, “This pandemic has been all about change: change in your work environment, change of wearing masks and change of who you hang out with. That natural resistance to change is just another layer to all of this coronavirus stress.”

But it’s possible to try to level that roller coaster so the dips aren’t quite as sharp, helping you maneuver all the challenges that arise with a bit more agility. And that’s especially important heading into winter and a drastically altered holiday season.

Mindfulness and being in the moment

We don’t know how much longer this pandemic will stretch. While new estimates say a successful vaccine could become widely available by the spring, it could still face delays and the pandemic could last into next fall. And it’s important to start maintaining your own mental health and preparing for that long haul now.

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Mindfulness has been a popular topic when it comes to self-care during the pandemic and with good reason: it can help you stay focused, calm and in the moment. Dr. Albers agrees, stressing the need to stay rooted in the present. 

“Using mindfulness and trying to control the present is important,” she says. “We can’t control what’s going to happen in the next month or several months down the line, but really focusing your mindset on today — what can I do today? — can help people from not feeling so overwhelmed.”

That extends to the daily routine of how you stay safe during the pandemic, too. “If you tell yourself, ‘I have to wear my mask for the next year,’ that can really get to you,” Dr. Albers says. “If you tell yourself, ‘I can do it for today,’ that can help.”

Your mindset, she says, doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. It can be more focused on minimizing the risks that are around you. “There are going to be ups and downs,” she adds, “but if you can hold on through that dip, you can get to the other side of it.”

“Many people feel like they’re sort of holding their breath and waiting for it to be over,” she says. “But you’ve got to keep going and enjoy the moments that are happening now instead of putting everything on hold until this is over because it could be a while. We need to do our best to keep living, enjoy every day and find the things that do make you happy every day.”

5 other ways to manage stress for the long term

Dr. Albers outlined several other ways we can manage our coronavirus stress and do our best to keep things emotionally level when the wild ride feels like it’s getting to be too much. 

Get outside

Getting out and about is a good way to burn off some of that stress and get some other benefits, too. Yes, it’s turning colder, but as long as you layer up even if just for a walk, there’s still a benefit. “The Vitamin D is really helpful for boosting your mood and reducing stress hormones, too,” Dr. Albers says. 

Even in the fall and winter it can be as easy as going for a nature walk, hanging out by a fire pit or running and exercising — just be sure to bundle up as necessary and practice proper social distancing guidelines. 

Monitor how you consume the news

A common piece of advice from experts during the pandemic has been to monitor and limit your own exposure to news about the pandemic, both in terms of how much time you spend on it and where you get your information from.

Dr. Albers echoes this sentiment, saying that when people get so overwhelmed by bad news, they turn the news off. “Fear isn’t a great way to motivate people,” she notes. Instead, she suggests being mindful of when and how you consume the news. 

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“Be really aware of the time of day you’re tracking the news. Don’t watch it at night right before you go to bed or first thing in the morning,” she says. Instead, wait for the right moment to catch up. 

“Wait for when you’re in a good emotional space. You can flip through to find what kind of news you need. Just be mindful about what you consume,” she adds.

Look for the positives

It might seem counter-intuitive, but Dr. Albers also suggests reflecting on good things that have happened, whether that’s more quality time with family, more time outdoors or new hobbies you’ve picked up. 

“It’s really important to focus on the positives, the opportunities that have happened. Maybe that’s new-found flexibility in working from home,” she says. 

Avoid things that will make you feel worse

In times of stress, people sometimes turn to things that help them cope at the moment but can actually make things worse. “Turning to things like drugs, alcohol and emotional eating might provide temporary relief but they really just compound the problems,” Dr. Albers says. 

And be careful about pandemic stress sleep deprivation. “When we’re feeling sleep-deprived,” she says, “things can feel way too taxing.” By focusing on things like getting enough sleep, it can help put you in a better emotional space to combat stress.  

“Getting that extra 30 minutes of sleep or staying away from things that may make your sleep worse in the long run can go a long way to helping you deal with the emotional ups and downs,” she adds.

Ask for help

Finally, one of the most important things in ongoing periods of uncertainty is to keep an eye out for depression. We previously spoke to Dr. Albers about caution fatigue and she warned that this caution fatigue can sometimes turn into depression. 

“If you or someone you love starts to experience this, if you feel like you’re just so down about it or in a very negative space, it’s helpful to consult a professional because chronic stress can turn into depression,” she says. 

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