High anxiety: How can we best navigate the stress surrounding a pandemic?

Updated: Apr 8, 2020

Unknowns such as work security, sick leave & the potential reach of the virus have stress levels rising.

Let's get one thing straight right now.

If you’re feeling stressed about the COVID-19 pandemic, you are perfectly normal.

Stress is a natural, healthy biological response to perceived threats. It’s what prepares our bodies to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

But stress becomes a problem if it triggers obsessive thinking, places us in a constant state of fight-or-flight and hijacks our ability to think and reason. In fact, unhealthy stress and fear can become almost as toxic as the virus itself – infecting our loved ones, spreading panic and weakening our own physical defenses against sickness.

We talked to Charley Joyce, a licensed clinical social worker at Abound Counseling, to collect de-stressing ideas for the public during this difficult and confusing time. Here’s some advice from Charley, who has 40 years of counseling experience, and from other experts around the web:

  • Step away from the electronics. Naturally, we want to remain well-informed and prepared, but watching a constant news cycle of pandemic-mania will strain even the healthiest brain. In fact, a steady diet of these dire warnings can make us feel like there’s no hope – a state that will make it even harder to get through this. A realistic yet hopeful outlook will make it much easier to sustain the energy and mental fitness we need right now.

  • Be smart about what news we do consume. More than ever, it’s vitally important to make sure the news you digest is accurate and legitimate. Keep in mind that social media sites like Facebook can be magnets for propaganda masquerading as news, usually created by people who wish to stir up fear or manipulate the public to meet their own agendas. Cross-reference information with other media to make sure it’s legitimate, and rely on established, respected news sources or the Centers for Disease Control website for new information.

  • Stay in touch. For the extroverts and social butterflies among us, isolating at home can be extremely difficult. Remember that you can still interact with others by texting, emailing, actually using that cell phone to call people or using video platforms like FaceTime.

Tap into your experience and self-knowledge. You know yourself better than anyone else does, so use that knowledge. Ask yourself: What has worked in the past to make me feel better? Maybe it’s shutting off the TV and listening to your favorite music, taking a hot bath, going for a walk, practicing yoga stretches, journaling your concerns, creating art, meditating or practicing mindfulness. Maybe it's snuggling with your kids and reading them their favorite story. Perhaps it’s taking advantage of this unexpected time at home to finally get to an unfinished project that has nagged at you for ages. (Just think of the feeling of accomplishment when you finally get those porch steps fixed or the home office organized!)

  • Look at this as a time to build relationships. Rather than viewing school closings as an inconvenience that means everyone is crammed under one roof, look at it as a time to reflect on our lives and what really matters to us. That might mean spending quality time with kids by initiating a backyard game of ball, a nature hike, a puzzle project or a silly game. “Research shows that just being in the presence of a compassionate, safe adult can help kids calm down,” Farmer Kris writes. “As families, we can be ‘that person’ for each other.” PBS Parents offers all kinds of great ideas for family activities at home.

  • Just br-e-e-e-a-a--t-h-e. When we’re nervous or upset, our heart rate increases and our breath becomes shallow. Deep breathing resets the central nervous system and helps

us respond thoughtfully vs. reacting recklessly.

One of the simplest exercises to try is four-square breathing: breathe in through the nose for

four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, breathe out through your mouth for four seconds, hold your breath four seconds. Repeat four times.

  • Put out the FireH.O.S.E. We love this advice from Deborah Farmer Kris, a parent educator, teacher and contributor to PBS KIDS for Parents. She uses the H.O.S.E. acronym to remind parents and kids alike of the self-care tips that keep our brains and bodies functioning at their best:

  • AM I HUNGRY? Hunger affects mood, and blood sugar shifts can trigger release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.

  • Am I OVERSTIMULATED? It's likely we all are, especially as we worry about how long this will last or whether we have enough sick leave. Ask yourself if you can take 15 to 30 minutes to step away and do something purely relaxing. Tell your kids what you are doing so they know this type of self-care is important: “I am listening to my body and it needs a little break.” Help them take similar breaks.

  • Am I SLEEPING enough? The more sleep we get, the more emotionally resilient we become. For adults, limiting caffeine, going to the bed at the same time every night and banishing the TV from the bedroom can help. (Learn how sleep deprivation also weakens our immunity.) Parents might find this Daniel Tiger video helpful for getting little ones to go to bed on time.

  • Do I need to EXERCISE? Our bodies – big or little – need to move. Activity triggers those feel-good endorphins and neurochemicals and helps us feel calmer, more focused and more productive.  “It’s how humans were built,” says neuropsychologist Dr. Wendy Suzuki. “We were not built to sit in front of a screen all day long.”

In short, control what you can. We can’t predict school closings, cancelled events or the trajectory of the pandemic. Instead, focus on the little steps that we can control, such as self-quarantining for at least 14 days if we’re sick, following good hand-washing protocol, practicing social distancing, avoiding crowds, using disinfectant wipes on grocery carts, and coughing or sneezing into the crook of our elbow or (even better) a disposable tissue.

– Tammy Swift

*Why worry? Learn more about why the higher-functioning parts of our brains make us worry, and one doctor's “brain hack” for avoiding coronavirus-related panic:


*Would talking to a professional help? Abound Counselors across the state are offering therapy via telehealth during this critical time. Learn more: www.lssnd.org/aboundcounseling

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