Managing stress and anxiety – The COVID-19 crisis and quarantine have been associated with profound increases in stress and anxiety for so many people. This stress has progressed and changed with each different phase of the crisis.
First, we wondered whether or not COVID-19 would come to the United States, and what it would mean if it did. Once it arrived, and we learned about social distancing and quarantine orders, we wondered how sheltering-in-place would affect us, our relationships, and our employment. How long could this social distancing last? We also worried about our health and safety as well as the health and safety of our families and friends. For thousands, this stress and anxiety was further compounded by the loss of loved ones and friends to the virus.
With little time to mourn and adapt, we now find our society moving into a new phase: reopening. This comes with new questions and stressors: Are we ready to reopen? Is it safe to leave my house and go back to work?
Unsurprisingly, these questions and stressors have had a profound effect on mental health.
According to one recent survey, up to 45% of Americans stated the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. Here are some strategies to help manage the newest phase of the crisis and associated stress and anxiety.
Remember, this is a stressful time for nearly everyone. For most of us, our behavior is not necessarily at its best when we’re under stress. This can lead to conflict and exacerbate that stress. As we reenter our jobs and social environments, here are a few strategies to manage anxiety in a public setting:
- First, remember you’re not alone. So many people around the world have experienced spikes in mental health concerns over the past three months. If you’re experiencing stress and anxiety over the reopening of society, it is completely understandable. Creating space for self-compassion and acknowledging the validity of your concerns can be really helpful.
- Take basic precautions. Follow the medical advice of your local experts and wear masks. Wash your hands. We don’t need to be obsessive in these efforts but taking very basic steps can dramatically reduce your risk. This fact alone can help manage some anxiety-provoking thoughts. If you find your anxiety creeping up, a reminder that you’re doing everything you should be doing to protect yourself while continuing to live your life can be helpful.
- Remember, safety first. Although it might feel temporarily rewarding to engage in conflict with someone over their choices (e.g., not wearing a mask), this conflict actually increases your stress levels, and it may be potentially dangerous. Prioritize your own safety and consider simply removing yourself from the situation if possible. Furthermore, arguments are rarely constructive in leading to behavior change, so what’s the point in increasing your own stress level?
- Start a conversation. If a conversation is appropriate or necessary, revisit the basics. Use “I” statements, describe the circumstances, be specific about consequences, and provide a request. Here’s an example of how to approach a colleague who isn’t wearing a mask: “I feel scared when you don’t wear a mask in our small office space because I’m worried about my grandparents who live with me. I would appreciate it if you wear your mask inside.”
- Keep in mind ‘fundamental attribution error’ or correspondence bias when in a situation. According to this social-psychological principle, we are inclined to place the blame for others’ behavior on their personalities, while we place blame for our own behavior on circumstances. In other words, we are more likely to recognize the complex circumstances that led to our behavior rather than considering the complex circumstances that may have contributed to someone else’s behavior. This is important today because we are all coping with COVID, quarantine, protests, and many other stressors in our own unique ways. When you find yourself in a challenging situation, try to remember most people are doing the best that they can under their own circumstances.
- Be flexible. Some days may feel better than others to re-engage with the world around you. Days may not go the way you expect them to go — for example, you may have to wait in line to run errands, and things may take longer than expected. Flexibility will help you navigate those challenges and changes. And when in doubt, return to the first suggestion above and show yourself some compassion. We’re all doing the best we can!
- Mindfulness and mediation are critical strategies to cope with anxiety and stress. This can take any format that works for you, but a key component is a present-focused mindset. In other words, focus on the “right now.” For most of us, we are safe and healthy right now. We don’t know what the future may hold, and the past has been challenging. But today, at this moment, we are okay.
- Practice deep breathing when feeling overwhelmed. To quickly calm your sympathetic nervous system (i.e. fight or flight system), practice diaphragmatic breathing. This is a simple strategy, and the best part is you can do it anywhere! Diaphragmatic breathing involves taking deep breaths into your belly rather than quick breaths in your chest. By simply changing your breathing, you can calm your body’s fight or flight response and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (i.e. rest and digest).
- Reach out for help. Let your family and friends know if you feel like you’re struggling. If you’re not already in therapy, consider setting up an initial appointment or talk to a doctor online. Most therapists are offering virtual services right now, including Carbon Health. Therapy doesn’t have to be a long-term commitment. Coping with COVID anxiety is a great opportunity to spend a few sessions learning some coping strategies that work specifically for you. It can help reduce the overall stress burden from COVID and help you feel a little better equipped to manage a future crisis.