Tips for Coping with Coronavirus Stress

With the coronavirus throwing us into an uncharted state of uncertainty, our anxiety is through the roof. Many of us are practicing social distancing or spending our time in isolation or quarantine. The mental health effects of these circumstances are likely to be vast as we know from prior research, but whatever state we may find ourselves in, self-care is essential. There are powerful tools and practices to adopt right away that can help us take care of ourselves and one another. Here are some tips to help us cope in this period of uncertainty.

1. Embrace Self-Compassion

If there was ever a time to wholeheartedly embrace compassion, that time is now. “Self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness, optimism, and positive emotions,” according to lead researcher Dr. Kristin Neff. When we’re alone or afraid, a critical voice in our head can start to take over, critiquing our actions and exacerbating our fears. Practicing self-compassion not only gives us a break from beating ourselves up, but it allows us to feel connected to others through a shared human experience. 

Here’s what it comprises:

  1. Self-kindness rather than self-judgment
  2. Mindfulness rather than over-identification with thoughts and feelings
  3. Common humanity rather than isolation

As times get hard, the kinder we can be to ourselves the better. The more we can stay present and practice mindfulness, the less we’ll get carried away by torturous thoughts about the past and future. And finally, the more we can see our suffering as part of a common human experience, the less alone we will feel.

2. Practice Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation can be a life-changing way to attain a sense of peace and presence in times of stress. One easy practice we can start right away is Dr. Daniel Siegel’s “Wheel of Awareness,” a step-by-step guided method to help us slow down and actually integrate our brain. The exercise helps us to focus our attention on our senses, messages from our body, mental activities such as thoughts, and the internal workings of our own mind (awareness of awareness) and, lastly, on our sense of connection to others. This process can help lead us to a state in which we feel more connected to ourselves and to those closest to us. 

There are many more free and easily accessible mindfulness meditations you can find online and in apps. While trying it may feel a bit tricky or uncomfortable at first, countless scientific findings show that sticking with mindfulness meditation can help us be healthier mentally and physically. Research demonstrates it can actually boost our immune system, something we could all benefit from right now.

3. Try 4-7-8 Breathing

A page created by SAMHSA on taking care of your behavioral health during a disease outbreak advises those distancing themselves to “relax your body often by doing things that work for you—take deep breaths, stretch, meditate or pray, or engage in activities you enjoy.”  Breathing can be a powerful tool to manage anxiety and any overwhelming emotions.  A simple place to start is with 4-7-8, a five-step breathing exercise that is easy and effective. The exercise can be done anytime, anywhere, and can help relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and induce sleep. Here’s how it works:

  1. Start by putting the tip of your tongue to the top of your mouth just behind your two front teeth.  
  2. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds. 
  3. Hold your breath for a count of seven seconds. 
  4. Breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight seconds. Try to make a “whooshing” sound as you do this. 
  5. Start again immediately. Breathe in for a count of four and continue through the cycle 4-5 times before returning to your normal breath for the most benefit. 

4. Reach Out to Others 

Even when we cannot meet in person, it is incredibly important to keep connecting to friends and family. According to SAMHSA “reaching out to people you trust is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety, depression, loneliness, and boredom during social distancing, quarantine, and isolation.” They recommend using phone, email, text messaging, FaceTiming or Skype, and social media. 

It can be a great relief to just see a person’s face and hear their voice. We can try to be open about our feelings and experiences and invite others to do the same. We will all have moments when we are more or less calm or fearful, and we can take turns leaning on one another for support. We should also try to have fun, play games. and joke around. Laughing and allowing ourselves to relax with friends in familiar ways is something we should assign a lot of value in tough times.

5. Engage Your Mind

When a crisis occurs, it can be really hard to think of anything else. Yet, with each day passing, we must find ways to tune in to who we are and what matters to us. Finding activities that stimulate our mind and distract us is important. Working from home is a good way to keep busy. Taking time to play games with our family, read, write, do puzzles, watch interesting movies or TV shows, and have conversations that focus our attention in new ways all can be extremely beneficial. We should try to stay curious and committed when it comes to keeping our mind awake and well 

6. Take Media Breaks

While staying informed is really important right now, we can also allow ourselves to take breaks from the news.  One of the things SAMHSA suggests is to “pace yourself between stressful activities, and do something fun after a hard task.” Watching or reading the news can be one of these stressful activities. We can give ourselves permission to pause and do something completely distracting, any activity that brings us pleasure and takes our mind off the source of our stress.

7. Exercise (Safely)

Staying physically healthy is important. Exercise reduces anxiety, releasing feel-good chemicals like endorphins and reducing chemicals that can make us feel down. Physical activity also increases body temperature, which can help us feel calmer. If we’re healthy and have to stay home, there are still plenty of physical activities to keep us active. Yoga is a great practice that can also have huge benefits in terms of calming our nerves and helping us stay present. Just make sure any exercise routine you engage in fits your specific circumstances as advised by your doctor or CDC recommendations.

8. Connect with Nature

It can be greatly beneficial to try to find ways to connect with nature. If it’s safe to do so in our area, we can take a walk in a green or open space.  If we’re at home, we can try to look out the window or watch the sunset. A report from the University of Minnesota showed that “being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings.” Even having a household plant nearby can help us feel less stress, while looking at photos of the outdoors can help us stay calm and focused. Nature can have remarkable calming and healing effects on how we feel and can be a powerful tool in coping with anxiety. 

9. Practice Optimism and Gratitude

Last but not least, we can make efforts to maintain a sense of hope and positive thinking. We may be living in a new kind of moment, but, we are doing what we can to get through it in ways that are safe, healthy, and compassionate. Chances are, we will start to miss a great many things, but this missing feeling is also one of deep gratitude for all the things we have and love as well as what we miss. A gratitude journal can be a wonderful way to focus on the positive, to be grateful for each day we have, and to zoom in what is going well under the circumstances.

Whatever each of us is going through, we must try to remember that we are not going through it alone. We are learning, and we are leaning on one another in novel ways. The love and care we have for one another is challenged to shine brighter in dark times, and finding new ways to express that love is a challenge we should welcome. We must remember to take care of ourselves and of one another, knowing we are in this together, and together, we’ll move forward.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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