When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in early 2020, it felt scary — but also temporary. Realistic or not, many of us were optimistic that this whole thing would be behind us in a matter of months.
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“People are feeling frustrated, stressed and, in some cases, depressed about the future,” says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD. We talked with Dr. Albers about ways we can channel this frustration and anger at the lingering pandemic.
From weight gain to changing work conditions to poor sleep, the pandemic has upended our lives in countless ways. Even with vaccines widely available, there is still a spike in breakthrough cases. How can you deal with the realization that we’re still mired in the middle of it all?
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but these 10 strategies can help you find some stress relief.
“We like it when things are in our control,” Dr. Albers says. We can’t wave a magic wand and make the coronavirus disappear, but we can focus on the things we have some power over — even if it’s just what time you go to bed each night. “Make a list of the things you can control, and put your energy toward those things.”
Imagining what the world will look like in six months, a year, a decade? It’s a recipe for worry. “If you think too far down the line, it’s easy to get overwhelmed,” says Dr. Albers. Take it one day at a time. Adopting a mindfulness practice can help you stay in the moment.
A lot of the sadness people are feeling comes from what they’re missing. Some people still feel too much anxiety to enjoy brunches with friends. A staycation with your spouse is a lot less exciting than the beach vacation you took a few summers ago. But thinking about what you’re missing prevents you from seeing what’s good in your life. “Some of the grief you’re feeling may come from comparing the present moment to the past. If you just look at what happened today, it might not be so bad,” says Dr. Albers.
It can feel like you’re stuck in a holding pattern. “People are holding their breath, waiting for whatever is coming next. But we shouldn’t put our lives on pause,” says Dr. Albers. You may not be traveling the world or going to parties, but you can take up gardening, adopt a pet or start a weekly picnic tradition with your kids. “Continue to live and grow and use this time to find ways to enjoy yourself,” she says.
The pandemic has upended a lot of our routines. We’ve had to get used to sanitizing and mask-wearing, working remotely and finding new ways to stay in touch with loved ones. Figuring out all those new habits is exhausting. Give your brain a break by making things as routine as possible. Set up weekly grocery delivery, so it’s one less thing to worry about. Make Friday pizza night. “If it’s routine, it’s not as mentally taxing,” says Dr. Albers.
Yes, you might have to look really hard, but focusing on the positive can help you move forward each day. Maybe working from home means you don’t have to deal with traffic. Or you’re spending more time with family. Or you’re simply grateful for your good health. “The way we think about a situation can be a help or a hindrance,” says Dr. Albers. “Look at this as an opportunity to find the positives.”
For many people, one of the hardest parts of pandemic life was the loss of social connection. Thanks to the widespread availability of vaccines, it’s possible to be with friends and family again as long as you’re careful and set boundaries. Before a get-together, make sure everyone is vaccinated. And if you’re still worried about breakthrough cases, the availability of over-the-counter COVID-19 tests that take about 15 minutes to see if you’re negative can give you extra peace of mind. Don’t give up on your social circle, Dr. Albers says. It’s worth the extra effort to get together with those people who are so important to you. “We need to keep finding ways to meet our social needs,” she says.
If hitting the gym or grabbing coffee with a friend were your go-to coping mechanisms, you might be in a doubly tough spot. “Think outside the box to find new ways to cope with stress,” Dr. Albers says. You might try something you never thought of before, whether that’s meditation or running outside. The key is to focus on trying new things, instead of dwelling on old coping strategies that are no longer working, she adds. “Instead of thinking of it as a loss, think of it as a chance to evolve.”
Lots of people are feeling the same stress, sadness and frustration right now. It can help to reach out to friends to talk about it, says Dr. Albers. She also recommends journaling as a way to process your emotions. “Our feelings during this period are so up and down. Writing about them can help you detach to see the big picture.”
Pandemic life is hard, and you’ll have good days and bad days. But if you’re feeling really down, it might be a good time to reach out to a mental health professional, Dr. Albers notes. “This is such a stressful time. If you’re experiencing signs of depression, a mental health professional can offer support.”