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Stress and Anxiety during COVID-19

By Melissa Milanak, PhD, PAR Clinical Assessment Advisor

Stress and anxiety: protective or destructive? Perhaps the answer is both—in moderation. In today’s world, we teach our children from an early age that stress is a normal part of life. It motivates us. It protects us. It shows that we are invested. However, we also know that prolonged anxiety can take a toll on our bodies and immune system, and to this end, industries have been built on providing relaxation, getaways, and more. But what happens when the thing causing us stress cannot be seen by the naked eye; when every answer leaves us with more questions; when each day news and social media give us more reasons to worry, and then as a method of survival, we disconnect from social support and close all of the establishments that once were a source of respite and decompression? What happens: we buy cleaning supplies and toilet paper—and we keep stressing. 

When there are many unknowns that feel out of our control, it is a normal human reaction to search for ways to regain control and to find tangible ways to prepare. This is one of the reasons why so many people have been hoarding groceries and supplies. Being told that you are facing danger and the best way to protect yourself and your family is to wash your hands does not feel like enough effort for many people. 

Here are additional strategies to help manage stress and anxiety in healthy ways:

Limit news and social media: While staying informed is very important, it is recommended to limit the amount of time spent each day consuming information about the virus. Many sources incite an extreme feeling of fear and worry and do more harm than good. This is especially true for children who are hearing upsetting information through many modalities including social media and their friends. It is very important to balance facts, allow children and family time to ask questions and have honest conversations, but to also include positive details about good things happening across the globe.

Create and keep a schedule/routine: While many are on modified schedules and now working from home, that does not negate the value in having a routine. It is very important to continue to follow a sleep schedule, eat meals at consistent times throughout the day and engage in exercise, even if the location or duration needs to be modified. Children benefit from a daily schedule, and as their world is turned upside down with home schooling and other changes, helping them have a routine will benefit their mental health. Along with maintaining a modified routine, it is also necessary to practice healthy self-care, including resisting the urge to eat all of the extra snacks in the house, to overindulge in unhealthy coping such as a few extra drinks, or to nap during the day out of boredom. 

Utilize free resources: While looking for ways to fill the day or distract from constant virus talk, museums, aquariums, and art galleries are offering online tours. Broadway musicals and famous musicians are offering recordings and live streaming performances. Dance and Pilates/barre instructors are offering classes, and relaxation apps are offering subscriptions to practice healthy coping skills. 

Do not isolate: While social distancing and reducing physical contact is important to flatten the curve and reduce virus spread, that does not equate to isolation. Social interaction is very important for reducing feelings of anxiety and depression. Therefore, use technology to keep connected whether it be phone calls and text messages, video chatting, virtual dinners and date nights, or even a family friendly game night with family across the country. 

Make lemonade out of lemons: Reframe the negative to see a chance to have a family dinner with everyone around the table again, time to finally learn to play the guitar, or read a book that has been on the nightstand for months, or even a chance to have more time in the day because daily commuting has been eliminated. In a society that has spent many years with everyone attached to social media, phones, and tablets, this can be a time to venture outside for exercise (at a healthy distance) and to reconnect with family and friends.