As we deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are living through a dangerous time, attempting to navigate the polar opposite risks of isolation and engagement, amidst warnings about how our carefully orchestrated plans can be put in jeopardy by unknown hazards ahead.
Whether you are staying-at-home alone or with family, or venturing back into the retail world, you may find yourself overwhelmed by a constant stream of challenges. You may be feeling competing and paradoxical emotions: gratitude for your survival yet despair for those who have lost their lives to the virus, over 100,000 in the United States, or their livelihood from the months-long shutdown, with over 40 million Americans unemployed. Suddenly your world is no longer safe and secure. Feelings many range from shock about the magnitude of the effects of the pandemic to anger that we have not yet been able to contain the virus adequately.
When you consider the degree of devastation caused by COVID-19 throughout the world, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. As is true with all catastrophes these days, they are magnified by the 24/7 coverage by cable and Internet news services, leaving many feeling anxious, stressed and emotionally exhausted. Staying at home may presumably keep us out of harm’s way from the virus, but are societies creating an economic meltdown disaster by those very same interventions? Do you feel like you are in the middle of a tug of war? We naturally experience stress and anxiety when faced with paradoxical decisions. Mental health care providers and hotlines report a surge in suicides and calls from the general population experiencing high levels of stress caused by such uncertainty.
Concurrently, one of the major providers of stress reduction, the close support of family and friends, has been limited by both the required isolation and the fear that anyone can be a carrier of the virus. It has been a perfect storm because of our security fears – just when we are in need of a big hug, we are not able to get or give one. This may be a particularly difficult time for women, who traditionally have handled stress by the tend-and-befriend phenomenon, taking care of loved ones and reaching out to other women for support. Past studies have found that social ties reduce the risk of disease and help us live a longer, more satisfying and joyful life.
Across the United States and around the world, the effects of the global economic decline continue to spread – small and large companies are going out of business, people who were self-sufficient only a few months ago are in long food lines, retirement accounts have plummeted while stock markets remain erratic. No one can predict with certainty the long-term effects of the months-long shutdown on the economy, but most pundits agree that this collapse will not right itself in the near future.
How is all this affecting you? Are you feeling powerless, anxious and angry – on the verge of taking out your frustrations on those around you or on harming yourself? There are concerns that domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness are increasing. If you are feeling overwhelmed and fear that you may be spiraling out of control, consulting a mental health professional is the first step in coping with your fragility without turning to dysfunctional behavior. Telemedicine has taken a giant leap forward during the period of social isolation and can be the beginning of a positive response to the high level of stress you may be experiencing.
There are steps you can take on your own, as well. It may be difficult to get started and even harder to keep the forward momentum going. If you are stalled and begin questioning your abilities to cope, implement these nine important practical tips:
Focus on what you can control not what you can’t. Unless you are a virologist or research scientist, you personally cannot affect the course of the COVID-19 virus. Although you cannot change what is happening around you, you can change how you handle it. When you redefine your current situation as a challenge, you can focus your energies and tap into more optimistic thoughts. Let go of negative thoughts and unrealistic expectations. Be flexible and empowered as you take small steps.
Reach out to your support system. We may not be able to join together in person while isolating, but friends and family have connected through phone calls, emails and Zoom get togethers. Whether the technology is for seeing the grandchildren you can’t visit, a book or movie club discussion, or a virtual cocktail hour with coworkers or friends, the relationships that have strengthened you in the past still retain their strong bonds. When you talk about your thoughts and feelings, these virtual get-togethers can give you perspective, insight and help to validate your emotions.
Exercise. Find an activity that you enjoy – walking in your neighborhood, keeping fit through exercise classes on the Internet, or maintaining your own personal yoga routine. Physical activity can release endorphins, reducing your stress level. Studies show that 30 minutes of brisk walking reduces depression for several hours. Get enough rest and sleep to allow your body to recover.
Eat sensibly. When you follow a balanced diet of healthy foods rich in nutrition, that serves as a natural defense against stress. Many household cooks isolating with their families and faced with preparing three meals a day are finding new recipes on the Internet and sharing recipes with each other. Avoid the use of drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and limit your use of sugar, caffeine and cigarettes as they can contribute to feelings of tension.
Use relaxation techniques. Set aside time daily for a regular routine of deep breathing, guided imagery, meditation, listening to soothing music or other stress reduction methods to alleviate your feelings of anxiety. Get in touch with your spiritual connections for balance and grounding. Decide to put off worrying – much of what you may fear never actually happens anyway. Research on finding a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus is progressing rapidly and is expected to be available by the end of the year.
Draw on your strengths. What worked for you before when you were stressed? Recall what worked in the past and employ the most effective coping strategies once again. Evaluate how you can build on your assets now. Brainstorm additional ways to apply the abilities you have in a novel way as you find new resources.
Express gratitude for what you have. What are the things and people in your life that you are grateful for? Think about three pleasant things that happened each day. Every night, before you go to bed, write affirmations about what is good in your life. You’ll find that when you increase your awareness of these positives, you’ll be less likely to experience feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
Enjoy the gift of laughter. Friends are sending group emails with jokes, funny stories and cartoons. Search the Internet yourself for comedy routines, rent a funny movie or stream an amusing TV series. Studies have shown that laughter triggers the release of endorphins and a good mood helps you relieve stress, develop creative solutions and make better decisions.
Look outside yourself to those in need. Studies have found that when you perform acts of kindness and giving to those who have less, you feel happier yourself. With so many feeling the effects of isolation or economic stagnation, you can help either from the confines of your home or in person, utilizing a mask and social distance. It might be making a phone call to a single friend, bringing a meal to a hungry stranger, checking in with a senior. Numerous organizations need financial donations or volunteers to help staff their programs. Consider what best fits your interests, abilities and schedule, then make a commitment.
When you are facing uncertainty about the effect of this pandemic and prospects seem bleak, integrating these strategies can create a new positive direction in your thoughts and stimulate you toward reducing your stress. As you draw on your support, resources and strengths, you’ll be rebuilding and restoring hope and resiliency. And remember that families can grow stronger when they weather challenges together.