The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives, from health and exercise to work, school, parenting and socializing. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), many Americans are experiencing considerable stress related to the coronavirus. While you can’t control the virus, you can take steps to control how you respond to it.
In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks about managing COVID-related stress with Scripps psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Brackin.
COVID-19 has impacted many aspects of our lives, so it makes sense that our reactions to it vary widely. Many people experience physical symptoms, such as headaches, digestive problems or muscle tension. Some may have problems sleeping or may sleep too much. Others may lose their appetite or overeat.
Coronavirus-related stress can also have psychological effects. People whose income has been affected, for example, may be anxious about paying their bills or supporting their families. Working remotely and distance learning can take a toll on both adults and children who thrive on social interaction, leading to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Depression and irritability are common reactions.
If you don’t get a handle on your stress, you can raise your risk of more health issues.
“When we’re stressed, our blood pressure goes up naturally,” says Dr. Brackin. “That puts you at higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke, or even developing cancer.”
The pandemic has left many feeling a loss of control over their lives. The usual routines have been disrupted indefinitely, and the future seems uncertain. Coping techniques help.
Dr. Brackin offers the following tips to help you feel more in control of your life and keep your stress level in check.
No matter what your age is, it can be helpful to create some type of structure in your day. If you exercised before work, for example, try to continue to do so. Have meals at the same time as you did before the virus. Try to maintain familiar routines for yourself and your family. Of course, there will be some changes, but attempt to create normalcy where you can.
Social distancing requirements have significantly changed how we connect with our friends, coworkers and even our own family members. Except for those in your household, you probably aren’t seeing family as often as you used to. Children and teens may find it particularly difficult to be isolated from their friends and sports groups.
It’s important to continue to find ways to connect with people when you can’t see them in person, says Dr. Brackin, such as scheduling weekly phone calls or meeting virtually on Zoom.
Getting outside of the house can help relieve feelings of isolation, and spending time in nature has been shown to help reduce stress. Arrange to walk with a friend or get together in the yard while maintaining a safe distance.
If stress makes it difficult to fall asleep or you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, take a look at your sleep habits. Avoid looking at your phone, tablet and other screens for an hour before you go to bed. Not only can texting, watching news videos or playing games stimulate your mind, the blue light from screens can interfere with sleep.
Having a glass of wine may help you relax, but it can also disrupt sleep later. If you wake up and can’t get back to sleep right away, it can help to leave the bedroom and read or do something else relaxing until you feel sleepy again.
Any time you feel stressed, take a few minutes to practice deep, mindful breathing. Focusing on your breath can interrupt your body’s stress response, slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. Take a slow deep breath in for three seconds, hold it for a count of four, exhale for three seconds. Repeat this a few times until you feel calmer.
“Mindfulness meditation is a wonderful intervention to give yourself a sense of peace, regardless of what’s happening externally,” says Dr. Brackin. “There are some wonderful meditation apps that you can download to your phone and do anywhere.”
If you’re making an effort to manage your stress but still feel like you’re struggling, help is available. Talking to a physician or therapist can give you the tools you need to cope more effectively.
“This has been a very challenging year, and many people are experiencing the same feelings that you’re having,” says Dr. Brackin. “When you really feel like you’ve tried everything and you’re still feeling the same or even worse, you should absolutely seek out professional help. You’re not alone.”