Best Practices for Managing Stress and Anxiety During Times of Uncertainty
By Gary Seale, Ph.D., Regional Director, Centre for Neuro Skills
The COVID-19 outbreak has produced a great deal of uncertainty and unwelcome anxiety. It’s no wonder we feel distressed when our daily routines have been severely disrupted. Due to social distancing and business closures, most people are not able to visit their favorite restaurant, go shopping, or engage in a work-out routine at the fitness center. When you couple this with concerns about personal health, uncertainty about how long these changes will last, and information and directives that change daily, it’s no wonder that many of us feel dis-eased or anxious. Several credible sites have recently posted simple but effective strategies to manage stress and remain emotionally healthy during this time of uncertainty. Some of the most frequent suggestions by experts at the American Psychological Association, Forbes, the Harvard Business Review, HealthLine, and others include the following:
Differentiate between what is within your control vs. what is not in your control. Stay focused on the things you can do. Make a list and practice these regularly, and reward yourself for these practices. For example, you can:
- Wash your hands, cover coughs and sneezes, etc.
- Limit exposure to news. Manage stress by reducing (or eliminating) the number of times you check in to your favorite media outlet. The American Psychological Association recommends avoiding negative news right before bedtime.
- Take care of your health (take your vitamins, get enough sleep, hydrate, engage in a daily exercise routine, etc.).
- Practice your preferred relaxation technique if you feel stressed, such as deep breathing, yoga, mindful meditation, etc. If you don’t have a relaxation practice, now is a great time to develop one.
Do the things that help you feel safe, such as:
- Practice “social distancing” and limit exposure to groups of 10 or more people.
- Give an “elbow bump” vs. a hug or a handshake.
- Order out and have food delivered to your home or work; shop on-line and have items delivered to your home vs. going to a store or the mall.
Rather than worrying about something that might happen in the future, stay focused on the present; maintain proper perspective.
- Stay present and in the moment; focus on the task at hand.
- If you feel yourself “borrowing trouble,” bring yourself back to the present.
- Use a mindfulness practice (savor a favorite snack or meal; closely observe a pleasing object, such as a flower, etc.). If you don’t have a mindfulness practice, now is a great time to explore/develop one.
- Put the situation into proper perspective (for example, as of March 24th in Houston/Harris County there are about 206 confirmed/presumed cases of COVID-19 and 2 deaths from this virus. Nineteen have fully recovered. Houston/Harris County has a population of approximately 6+ million. That translates into an infection statistic of 0.003%). Additionally, we live in a time and a nation of great abundance – an abundance of intellectual horsepower (some of the best minds in infectious diseases are here in the U.S. and are working on vaccines for this virus); an abundance of resources (the government has released over a trillion dollars to support research, product development and distribution, and aid to businesses); an abundance of entrepreneurs (companies re-tooling to overproduce cleaning supplies, ventilators, etc.).
- This situation is temporary. As with other pandemics (MARS, SARS, H1N1, Zika, etc.), this too shall pass.
Engage in proven positive psychology practices.
- Start a gratitude list. Of all the positive emotions, gratitude is one of the most powerful and protective (from depressive symptoms). Simply start a list of all the things you are grateful for, large and small
- Three Good Things. At the end of the day, list 3 good things that happened during the day. Once you have your list on paper, think about how you made those good things happen and reward yourself
- Downward comparisons. Rather than thinking or saying to yourself, “I wish I…”, think or say to yourself, “I’m glad I…” For example, “I’m glad I work in the healthcare industry. I have a stable job, and in my work, I am able to help others.”
- Connect with something larger than yourself. In the example above, you may find yourself feeling compassion for those out of work due to COVID-19, like servers in the restaurant industry. Ordering out from your favorite local restaurant and tipping big may help keep that business open during a time when the restaurant is closed to the public. Or you may want to visit a local blood bank and give blood as most all blood donation activities at large venues, like businesses, churches, etc. have been suspended for the time being.
Get outside and enjoy nature.
- During this time when we are practicing “social distancing”, we may feel “cooped up” which can result in feelings of anxiety. Getting outdoors and enjoying nature can lift your mood and help with managing stress. Walking increases heart rate and respiration, which is good for brain function and overall health. Spending time in the sunlight produces vitamin D, which improves the immune response. Being in “awe” (of nature) is another, very powerful positive emotion that can lift the mood and protect against depressive symptoms.
Stay connected and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Take this time to call friends and family and catch up.
- Talk to a trusted friend about how you are feeling and all the practices you are using to stay healthy, both physically and mentally.
- If you are feeling particularly distressed, reach out to a counselor or other mental health practitioner.
- Talk to your supervisor or HR representative about your particular situation and any support you might need.
Engage in resilience practices.
- Think about a time when you faced a challenging situation and overcame it.
- In your home or office, post some inspirational quotes, for example: “Never, never, never give up.” – Winston Churchill; “Failure is not an option.” – Gene Kranz, NASA Flight Director; “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” – Robert Schuller
- Create a “resilience library” with inspirational books, videos, etc. For example, the book, “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand, or the movie, “Remember the Titans”.
- When possible, find “positives” (i.e., lower gas prices, safer commutes to work/less drunk drivers on the road, etc.), or lessons learned from the situation.
- Use humor as appropriate.
- If you have one, engage in your spiritual practice.