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Sheltering Arms Blog

Coping with Stress, Anxiety and Depression during Uncertain Times

Posted on: March 30, 2020 by Jenny Lankford

By: Pam MacMillan, PhD, Medical Psychologist

COVID-19 has thrown us a unique curveball that most of us never anticipated. We are dealing with a level of uncertainty and disruption that we are not used to and it’s occurring nationally. Uncertainty can throw many of us into a panic. Typically, we weather lifestyle changes and disruptions (loss of a job, health crises, change in family status, death) on a much smaller scale and often view others as operating just fine in comparison to how we are functioning. However, now it seems like most of us are in the same boat. COVID-19 seems to be the great equalizer in terms of its ability to bring much of our normal activity and routine to a screeching halt.

Before continuing, it’s worth noting there is a difference between reactive emotions related to a situation and a state of clinical depression and anxiety. People with chronic depression and anxiety may find their baseline symptoms increased due to the effects of COVID-19, while people who have never experienced mental health challenges will likely experience intermittent feelings of anxiety, anger, irritability and sadness that are situational in nature. We may feel overwhelmed with this combination of uncertainty and disruption and both groups need additional support during this time.

One of the most challenging things we are facing is lifestyle interruption with no clear end date. Knowing roughly how long we’ll have to deal with something is typically helpful. While we do indeed know this will end, we don’t know when, and that can trigger anxiety.

Many people have lost a sense of routine and structure. We wonder how to plan and how this virus may impact our ability to participate in much-anticipated and well-planned events in the next two months, like weddings and graduations. Most of us thrive on routine and having some sense of predictability and ability to control our future.

The steps taken to combat the spread of this virus have resulted in many of our assumptions being challenged, changed or blocked. All of these things can result in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness with increasing anxiety and despair. We are dealing with multiple layers of stress with a reduction on available outlets and ways to manage that stress.

So, how do we manage and ensure that we don’t spiral in terms of our emotions and mental health? You are not alone. There are many others feeling just as you are. We are in this together and we will get through this as a nation. Meanwhile, here are a few tips that you may find helpful in the interim:

  1. Try to focus on what you can control versus what you can’t. We can’t control when the lifestyle challenges and changes associated with COVID-19 will end, but we can control how we think and react to what’s happening. Try to watch your thinking and catch yourself when making statements that cause further helplessness. For instance, modify thoughts like “I will never get through this. This is awful and it’s never going to end.” with “I don’t like this. It’s frustrating and I don’t like the uncertainty, but I am going to cope as best as I can and take this one day at a time.” Most of the things we fear happening in life never do. If you have specific fears or concerns about protecting yourself against the virus or your risk factors, talk with your physician and develop a plan that works for you.
  2. Maintain perspective. You will have good days and bad days. One bad day doesn’t mean you’re sentenced to all bad days. This is a challenging time. Remind yourself this is temporary and things will get back to normal.
  3. Break it down! Don’t allow problems to come for you like a snowball – dismantle that big glob! Problems seem less overwhelming when they are broken down into compartments with a plan of action associated with each section. For instance, what’s my work plan? What is my economic plan? What’s my exercise plan? What’s my meal plan? What’s my plan for staying connected to people during this time?
  4. Find your new routine. Routine is something that helps us feel grounded. Try to avoid days where you have no structure. Even though you may not be going out, avoid the trap of not showering or dressing for the day. Try to engage in at least one productive activity to have a sense of accomplishment.
  5. Go outside when you can. Fresh air is good for your health and mood.
  6. Reflect on your past accomplishments and hurdles you’ve successfully gotten through.
  7. Avoid 24/7 opinion news about the virus. Limit your exposure to the news. Stay informed, but the 24-hour news cycle has fillers that include speculation and opinion; listening constantly can create more frustration.
  8. Keep it moving. Attempt to get in some daily exercise, no matter how simple. Twenty minutes of some type of sustained movement where you get your heart rate up is great and good stress management. Those with medical conditions should check with their physician as to what’s best for them.
  9. Engage in self-care. Make sure you are getting enough sleep, eating healthy and engaging in things to take care of yourself.
  10. Stay connected with others via text, phone calls or even cards and letters. For many people, the amount of social stimulation and potential sources of positive reinforcement has gone down dramatically due to shutdowns. Do what you can to increase your contact with others during this time.
  11. If you need help, ask! Reach out to a professional if you feel your mood and anxiety level are unmanageable. There are many telehealth options available.