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How to Cope with COVID-19 Stress According to Science

7 practical ways to cope with COVID-19. 

By David K. Mosher, M.S.

How do we keep anxiety, fear, and paranoia at manageable levels with a virus that has (at the time of this post) infected 905,279 individuals worldwide?

The battle seems like it is outside of your home against some microscopic enemy, but the struggle actually starts inside your mind. Anxiety steals away our joy and peace by consuming our focus and kicking our imaginations into overdrive. We begin to create worst-case scenarios in our mind, which is like making a down payment on horrifying misfortunes that will never occur.

Specifically, with COVID-19, individuals are struggling with disquieting thoughts, such as worrying about infecting loved ones, dwelling on possible death, and feeling concerned for vulnerable populations. COVID-19 is a fast-moving, ever-shifting precipitant of anxiety that can send us spiraling quickly.

Ideally, we want to identify our anxiety snowball while it is still small and forming, but we cannot always catch the bullet before it takes off. You might be sitting in your home or work environment, trying to quarantine and stay safe, when panic about COVID-19 abruptly hits you. This is fairly common. Like an inflated beach ball held underneath the water that is suddenly let loose, anxiety can explode to our mind’s main stage from seemingly out of nowhere. Luckily, there are tools and resources that help you learn to process anxiety with wisdom.

If you are feeling stressed or anxious, these seven ways of coping will help you manage your emotions. These coping strategies will not always feel natural, but they are science-driven pathways to becoming a healthier person. Ask yourself, “How is what I’m doing helping me get to where I want to go in life?”

Taking a hard look at our actions, thoughts, or emotions can be a difficult process. Yet, resisting or suppressing our emotions actually creates paradoxical outcomes, such as aggravating our fears instead of making them vanish. Thus, these coping strategies embrace and approach our stressors head-on to build resolve, grit, and resiliency. It is normal to find it difficult to be consistent when starting a new routine. Give yourself plenty of self-compassion because, when it comes to coping, the most important step you can take is always the next one.

Strategy #1: Assess the Four Pillars

Ensuring we have a rock-solid foundation for basic health needs is a must. These four pillars are the foundation for emotion regulation, and they are like the legs of a table. If the emotion-regulation table is unstable, then it is difficult to use other coping methods and build ourselves up. The four pillars consist of sleep hygienenutritionstaying physically active, and social support. Let us begin by simply reflecting on our emotion-regulation table’s stability.

  • Do you maintain a regular sleep schedule and practice other healthy sleeping habits (e.g., using naps with care, limiting light exposure from LED screens before sleep)?
  • Do you maintain a healthy balance of nutritious foods (e.g., vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy protein)?
  • Are you able to exercise regularly (e.g., 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity) and stay somewhat physically active during your day?
  • Are you self-isolating from others? Are others perceiving you as emotionally withdrawn?

These questions assess our basic human needs and are good starting points for developing coping strategies. Moreover, with COVID-19 disrupting many people’s sense of normalcy, these assessment questions are particularly useful.

Strategy #2: Emotion-Based Coping

Here is the good news about emotions: Emotions are momentary. Emotions can rise up to be tidal waves, but they will pass. Emotion-based coping strategies help you stay upright through the emotional waves by matching your actions to your feelings.

1. When you are sadmelancholy, or depressed, try something slow and soothing like:

  • Taking a hot bath while listening to soothing music
  • Curling up under a blanket with a good book
  • Practicing yoga
  • Calling a friend to just talk about things you like

2. What if you are angryfrustrated, or restless? Then you can try:

  • Cleaning your house
  • Making Play-Doh models and smashing them
  • Cranking up loud music and dancing
  • Ripping up a photo or drawing of someone who is making you angry

3. When anxiety is gripping you, then you can try:

  • Calling out your worries by saying them out loud
  • Breathing and placing your hand on your heart to measure your heartbeat
  • Discharging your tension with some laughter by watching a funny video
  • Noticing the unhelpful, lifeless thoughts that do not give you vitality (e.g., “What will happen tomorrow?”)

Strategy #3: Grounding

When we have intense emotional pain or overwhelming anxiety, grounding helps anchor us to the reality that is occurring in the present moment. In short, grounding provides distance between us and our negative feelings. Grounding can be broken down into mental, physical, and soothing strategies (Najavits, 2002).

1. Mental grounding could involve:

  • Describing your environment in detail using all five senses (e.g., the walls are beige, the fan is whirring, the chair is firm)
  • Playing a “categories” game (e.g., thinking of types of dogs, listing famous cities)
  • Saying a safety statement out loud to yourself (e.g., My name is ____; I am safe right now. I am in the present, not the past. I am located in ____; the date is _____.)

2. Physical grounding might entail:

  • Digging your feet into the floor
  • Carrying a small object (e.g., rock, ring, cloth) to touch and focus on
  • Running cool or warm water over your hands

3. Soothing grounding examples include:

  • Putting up inspiring songs or quotes in your environment to act as reminders
  • Thinking of things you are looking forward to next week
  • Saying a coping statement (e.g., “I can handle this; this feeling will pass.”)

To get the most out of grounding strategies, it is recommended that you try grounding for 20-30 minutes, practice often, and create your own methods of grounding. What is one creative way you could anchor yourself to reality?

Strategy #4: Deep Breathing

Deep breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, is a sure-fire method of managing your body’s response to anxiety and stress. Anxiety and stress attack your nervous system and send you into a “fight, flight, or freeze” response that wears down your body with a multitude of physical symptoms (e.g., shortness of breath, racing heart, trembling, dizziness, sweating).

To maintain control, Navy SEALs are trained in a method called box breathing because it helps them calm their minds and bodies when under stress. Box breathing entails inhaling slowly for four seconds, holding your lungs full of air for four seconds, exhaling for four seconds, and holding your lungs empty for four seconds. This GIF is one of many that helps with the timing of box breathing. If anxiety had a version of “stop, drop, and roll,” then the first action (or the “stop” action) of managing anxiety is to breathe. This method is simple yet effective in slowing down a stress response. It just takes practice.

Strategy #5: Mindfulness

Mindfulness boosts our immune system, increases positive emotions while reducing stress, and facilitates healthy relationships in couples and families. Mindfulness is a mental superpower of being mentally active, accepting, and open to the moment to moment process. In short, we tune in to what we are sensing, feeling, and thinking as it occurs in the present moment without giving it any judgments of “good” or “bad.”

Guided mindfulness meditationsmindful eating practices, and mindful walking are a few ways to strengthen this mental muscle. Other methods are already included in this post. Most fundamentally, all mindfulness practices have a three-step process of awareness, attention, and acceptance. Regarding anxiety with COVID-19, try noticing your thoughts without judgment, attuning to how these thoughts impact your being and breathing as they inevitably fade with time.

Strategy #6: Altruism

A plethora of research has consistently supported the notion that focusing efforts to help other people helps cultivate better emotional health. Given the COVID-19 precautions that limit contact, helping may look a little different, like calling to check in on a friend, sending encouraging texts, or sending uplifting videos to others.

Get creative! If you have a neighbor that is holed up alone, consider asking if they will download a social media app or ship them one end of a walkie-talkie so you can talk to each other while in your “forts.” Perhaps you are financially able to send care packages to other people, tip extra if you order delivery, or donate to charities.

Altruism reminds us of the good in humanity and why we prosper in a healthy community. Fred Rogers is often quoted saying, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Strategy #7: Understanding Our Problems

We need awareness and insight to start making changes in our lives. Regardless of our problems, we typically find four major elements that contribute significantly to the issue (Harris, 2009). Knowledge is power, and elaborating upon these four major elements gives us the insight we need to bring about change.

1. First, there is an entanglement with thoughts.

  • What memories, worries, self-criticisms, or other unhelpful narratives do we dwell on?
  • What thoughts do we allow to hold us back, push us around, or bring us down?

2.  Second, what feelings are we struggling against?

  • What are the emotions, urges, or sensations we are experiencing?
  • What emotions are we ignoring, fighting, suppressing?

3.  Third, what life-draining actions are we doing?

  • What keeps us stuck, wastes our time or money, and drains our energy?

4.  Fourth, what challenging situations are we avoiding?

  • What have you quit, put off until later, or stayed away from?

You can begin to answer these questions by 1) writing out a short summary of the problem you are facing, and 2) describing how it affects your life, and what it stops you from doing or being. What problems have COVID-19 caused in your life? How do these problems keep you from being your best self?

Conclusion

COVID-19 is a furnace of strife that is forging “new normals” around the world. While there is space for genuine concern, we can also find ourselves spiraling in unhelpful thoughts and reverting to ways of coping that get us nowhere. These seven ways of coping will help you come out of this forging process as a new person. Where would you like to begin?

Written by David K. Mosher M.S., a doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas who is currently finishing his internship at the Texas Woman’s University counseling center. He studies positive psychology with specific foci in religion/spirituality, humility, forgiveness, awe, and other virtues. He has earned awards for both scholarly works and teaching excellence during his graduate career, and he has published over 20 research articles in peer-reviewed journals.

References

Emmons, R. A., & Shelton, C. M. (2002). Gratitude and the science of positive psychology. Handbook of Positive Psychology18, 459-471.

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: A quick-start guide to ACT basics and beyond. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Najavits, L. (2002). Seeking safety: A treatment manual for PTSD and substance abuse. New York, New York: Guilford Publications.

This post was originally published on Hope + Resilience | Psychology Today and adapted with permission for use by National COVID-19 Day.

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