Survivor's Guide to Reducing Stress During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Updated: Apr 1, 2020
You’re probably reading this in some level of lock-down due to the coronavirus. Perhaps you have been infected. Most likely you’re working from home, hunkered down hoping that you and your family will not fall victim to the pandemic.
A lot of us are wondering where the next paycheck is coming from or if our retirement savings will survive the stock market collapse. Perhaps you had to close your business. Even more basic, will we ever find any toilet paper, bread, and Purell.
Worry and anxiety are spreading throughout the country. We are all filled with varying degrees of dread.
The number of coronavirus infections is increasing exponentially. Hospitals are being overwhelmed: too few beds and ventilators, not enough trained personnel, etc. The economy is teetering on the verge of recession or worse.
Let’s stop and take a deep breath. Sit up straight, breathe in and exhale slowly. Let your body relax. Repeat as many times as you need to.
Like me, you’re worried about your future and the well-being of your family. In this unprecedented situation all of us are vulnerable to heightened anxiety, depression, anger and frustration. Our lives and emotions are being strained beyond normal limits. Life seems so uncertain and seemingly out of our control.
Speaking for myself, I’m scared, and at times overwhelmed. I’m worried about my family, my friends, the country.
I need to take another few deep breaths.
What to do?
Like all crises, this is something we must survive.
The aim of this survivor's guide is to help you deal with the stress of living in uncertain times brought about by the worldwide pandemic.
Dealing with the stress induced by the coronavirus may be one of the most important things we can do for ourselves our families, and our community.
Let me be clear, my purpose is not to communicate ways you can avoid contracting the coronavirus. You can access the websites of WHO, the CDC, the American Lung Association, and the National Institute of Health to explore the best ways to protect yourself and your family.
Social distancing, washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water, disinfecting the home, and not venturing out, especially if you are feeling ill, remain the best advice. Listen to the advice given by medical experts.
The New York Times has compiled an eBook that covers many important aspects of the coronavirus. Knowledge is power. Access it here.
The best thing I can do right now is offer you what I’ve been doing, imperfectly, to remain balanced, clear headed, and not panicked in the face of uncertainty.
Follow Facts, Not Fear
Along with other high-level primates, humans can create stress by simply thinking, anticipating, and worrying. When this propensity is added to a daily life filled with social stress unknown to our ancient forebears, such as mortgages, traffic jams, crime, inequality, climate change, promotions, social isolation, obesity, large scale wars, and ill health our stress response system becomes chronically activated. This leads to an inability to turn off the stress response and fosters many of the chronic diseases we experience today.
The coronavirus can now be added to this list of worries.
The situation we face adds immense stress to our lives. We all fear getting sick and possibly dying. Unfortunately, there’s much more.
The virus threatens to take down our healthcare system and cripple the economy. This leads to fears of losing work, not paying the rent or mortgage, running low on food and essentials like toilet paper. Will our local hospital have a bed or ventilator for us and our loved ones should we become ill? What about our family elders? Will they survive? This is immense anticipatory anxiety.
To meet the challenge of the virus we are told to live in totally alien ways: Don’t go out, cancel our child’s birthday party, don’t congregate, don't go to church, work from home, don’t go to restaurants, etc., etc.
As humans we need to be social. Unfortunately, the solution to our problem runs against our most normal inclinations.
To make matters even worse, we experience a deep sense of not being in control, of radical uncertainty that weighs on us day in and day out. Will there be a vaccine in time to save thousands of lives? Will the virus keep expanding despite our efforts?
The result of this constant bombardment is that we worry, experience anxiety, depression, anger and become obsessed with regaining control. Hence, the run on toilet paper.
Physically, this long-term chronic stress produces destructive inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation has been associated with many chronic diseases.
Breathe. Let out the tension.
Meeting the challenge
Effective and science-based strategies are available to help us deal with the chronic stress imposed by the coronavirus. These are compensatory behaviors that, when incorporated into our lifestyles, can reawaken the parasympathetic process and activate its calming relaxation response.
Let me be clear, this is not a smile and be happy approach. If you maintain a calm and centered demeanor, you are best prepared to meet the challenges before us. Remaining focused establishes a greater capacity to make wise decisions and see them through. Being focused and calm bestows a critical realism necessary to meet the crisis.
I’ve listed below a series of behaviors that can create a dynamic, calm, and balanced way of living during the current turmoil. I have used all these approaches personally.
1 - Exercise
Exercise is one of the best ways to clear the mind, process emotions, and strengthen nearly every part of the body and mind. Current research demonstrates that exercise can give us a greater sense of control, lower anxiety, and combat depression.
In our current situation, going out for a run or brisk walk can be refreshing, clear our minds, and pump up the immune system. A nice long walk/run can unleash a cascade of endorphins and neurotransmitters such as serotonin that leaves us feeling calm, clear thinking, and emotionally stable. Exercise reduces stress, lowers stress hormones, and makes us more resilient.
Resistance training and yoga bestow similar benefits.
Currently, it is considered safe to go out for a walk or run. Just keep your distance.
Access these websites and apps for more info on the benefits of exercise:
2 – Nature
As with exercise, being out in nature has a calming effect on us. Being in or near green spaces brings about a physiological reaction that is both emotionally and mentally calming.
Populations with greater exposure to green-spaces are more likely to experience better overall health than those not so exposed. Such populations also demonstrate lower salivary cortisol (a stress hormone), lower heart rate, and better outcomes for neurological disorders, cancer, and respiratory conditions.
Take some time, whether exercising or not, to enjoy natural settings. You will feel a sense of contentment, serenity, and a sense of belonging.
More nature info:
Nature is Good for Your Health
Nature Sounds Apps:
3 - Meditation
There are two types of meditation that can be helpful during the pandemic.
The first meditation that may be helpful is to be mindful of your experiences and feelings. Sit and take note of your worry and then move your attention to your body and its sensations. Whenever a feeling or worry emerges attend to your body and what you are hearing and seeing.
By sitting and following your breathing and attending to sensations in your body, you can experience worry and anxiety in a way that isn’t overwhelming. It takes practice.
Access these sites to master mindfulness meditation.
Here is a short instructional video on mindfulness meditation.
The second meditation is called fostering the witness or internal observer. This technique fosters a healthy sense of separation from our emotions. We simply sit and observe what we are feeling. In this way we separate ourselves from our worries. Simply sit and watch yourself worrying. Don’t be that worry. You can even label each feeling as it emerges. To develop this skill access this site:
The Headspace app is offering a free collection of meditations to help cope with covid-19.
If, however, you experience strong negative reactions, simply stop the meditation.
4 - Relaxation
Like meditation, relaxation techniques are designed to bring about a deep sense of calm by slowing your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, and restoring body/mind balance. Relaxation techniques activate the body’s natural relaxation response. Rather than watching TV or pouring yourself a few beers, it may be more helpful to learn a few approaches that lower stress levels without negative side-effects.
Relaxation may be as simple as following your breath or as robust as learning to do a full body scan while relaxing each body part. Some techniques include diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, body scan meditation, visualization, self-massage, rhythmic movements, yoga and tai chi.
It takes some practice to garner the full results of relaxation techniques but with persistence they can bring your mind and body to a whole new place. It’s best to set aside some time each day to devote to using the technique you find most effective. Ten to 20 minutes a day is fine.
Take a few minutes to watch this video on progressive relaxation training.
5 - Diet
In times of stress such as ours, it is critical to adopt a diet that provides us with all the macro and micronutrients needed to sustain proper physical and mental function. The emphasis is on promoting immune function.
A proper diet is one that emphasizes a variety of multicolored fruits and vegetables, is primarily plant based, contains some fish such as salmon to provide omega 3 fatty acids, restricts calories and processed carbohydrates, and allows for healthy amounts of nuts, seeds, and fruits.
Cut out as much junk food, sugar, and processed foods as possible. Eat copious amounts of fiber to maintain your microbiome. Stay hydrated. Water is best. Get enough sleep. Sleeping is rejuvenating and one of the best things to maintain health.
Essentially, this is a low or anti-inflammation diet.
Choose foods from traditional, ethnic diets. It could be the Mediterranean diet, but you don’t need to restrict yourself to that one approach. There are great, wholesome diets from Asia, Africa, etc.
Supplement wise, make sure to get some extra vitamin D3, Zinc, Omega 3s, and vitamin C.
CNN has recently published an informative article on diet and immune system health.
I strongly suggest you consider supplementing with Theanine and Lemon Balm to calm your nervous system while your mind remains alert and active.
6 - Relationships
It is of vital importance to sustain meaningful relationships during the coronavirus crisis. Since social distancing is being mandated, we must find ways to stay connected but also restrict the spread of the disease.
The first thing to do is establish open lines of communication within the household. When we are forced to be together in small spaces, all concerns must be heard.
Second, stay in touch with family and friends through video chat. Don’t neglect family and friends during the crisis. Share your feelings and concerns. Show support for friends and family members in need.
Third, find creative ways to deal with children. Keep them learning. Connect with e-schools, and virtual museums and aquariums. It can be exciting to explore the world together.
Helping kids stay the course can be demanding and require some creativity. Try this website for lots of tips to help with keeping kids busy, entertained, and informed. This additional site can help with educational projects.
Fourth, don’t bring family elders into the main family group. It’s too risky. I know it's hard but it is essential for their health and survival.
Being on lock-down will demand that we find new ways of relating and finding meaning in our everyday lives.
Relationships and Health Websites:
7 - Sleep
One of the best things you can do to tackle stress is to get enough sleep. A lack of sleep exacerbates our stress reaction and can lead to physical and mental health problems. On the one hand, too little or disturbed sleep can intensify stress issues. On the other hand, too much stress can disturb our sleep. It’s a vicious cycle. Especially when we are under long-term chronic stress, such as we are now. Sleep patterns can become erratic.
Good sleep rejuvenates our mind/body system like nothing else.
Utilizing the stress management techniques listed above can go a long way to reduce your stress response, lower stress hormones and produce a state of calm.
Getting to sleep can be helped by listening to music or nature sounds. Self-hypnosis can be very effective in inducing pre-sleep relaxation.
Don’t underestimate the power of sleep to foster health and well-being.
Try this relaxing sleep inducing video.
It seems clear that those suffering from heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, and mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety have a greater susceptibility to suffer severe symptoms and complications from the coronavirus.
It's important to know why these conditions increase the risk of complications and what can be done if the virus is contracted.
Mental Health Concerns
With the world being plunged into uncertainty, it is reasonable to be concerned about our own mental health issues and those of our family and friends.
If you have pre-existing issues (depression, anxiety, OCD, etc.) the stress of social isolation, and increased worry can exacerbate symptoms. For this reason, it’s important to maintain the use of medications and to stay in touch with your therapist, counselor, and psychiatrist.
For the general population, it’s important to adopt strategies that can decrease feelings of being out of control, fear, anticipatory anxiety, and hopelessness.
I’ve listed a few strategies that may help keep you grounded:
1 – Don’t spend an inordinate amount of time listening to the news or reading about the pandemic on the internet. Walk away from it.
2 – Keep socially connected. Isolation can deepen feelings of depression and anxiety. Try to maintain a schedule of connecting with friends and family.
3 – Create a stress time-out. Set aside time each day to practice deep breathing, meditation, and relaxation techniques. Taking a walk or exercising is helpful, as well.
4 – Follow the rules set up by the CDC to protect you, your family and the community during this time of crisis.
5 – If you or a loved one is experiencing destructive thoughts and behaviors, don’t hesitate to call a mental health provider or 911 if the case is serious.
6 – Keep things in perspective. Most people will not contract the virus. Of those that do, most will not be ill enough to require hospitalization. And of those hospitalized, most will recover.
Mental Health Websites:
Mental Health Apps:
Physical Health Concerns
If you suffer from physical illnesses that affect the severity and increased mortality of the coronavirus, it is important to know what they are and how to deal with them once infected.
· Heart Disease along with hypertension, heart failure, etc. make it difficult to cope with the symptoms of the coronavirus. Fever is especially dangerous and puts an extra burden on the already weakened heart muscle. Pneumonia, which a common symptom of the virus, makes it hard for the lungs to oxygenate the blood. All of this puts dangerous pressure on the heart.
· Diabetes compromises the immune system. This makes it harder for diabetics to fight off the coronavirus. A higher than normal glucose level is a breeding ground for the virus. Diabetics also have higher systemic inflammation which makes it easier to develop pneumonia.
· Chronic Respiratory Disease such as asthma and pulmonary hypertension as well as COPD put sufferers at greater risk of developing pneumonia. When infected the probability of dying from the complications of pneumonia are greatly increased.
Besides following the advice on lowering stress levels I’ve offered above by exercising, practicing meditation and relaxation, getting enough sleep, maintaining supportive relationships, and eating a plant-based diet, contact your medical doctor for advice on medications and of any needed oxygen requirements.
Websites for Pre-existing Conditions:
Exercise as much as possible. Get out in nature whenever you can. You can exercise outdoors! Take time each day to meditate and relax. Concentrate on taking the time to breathe deeply throughout the day. Make every effort to eat a good plant-based diet. Don’t rely on junk food. Stay connected to family and friends. Use social media, facetime, Zoom, etc. to keep in touch. Don’t lose track of your relationships. Get plenty of sleep and monitor your mental and emotional state as well as of those around you.
It’s my hope that by implementing these behaviors you can reduce the panic, anxiety, depression, and anger that can overtake the best of us.
Stay healthy. Follow the advice of medical authorities.
Remember to breathe deeply.
Warning: the information contained in this post is not meant to diagnose or treat disease. The information and advice contained herein are for educational purposes only.
The advice offered on the websites and apps recommended are solely that of the owners of the websites and apps and not the writer of this blog.
For medical advice, please contact your physician and mental health provider.