Ways to Manage Coronavirus Stress
Brian L. Meyer, PH.D., MA
1. Limit your exposure to depressing or stressful content. This means in the media, books, movies, newspapers, and TV shows. No more than one hour per day – and yes, that includes information about the coronavirus. Limit screen time, and increase reading; visuals are much more powerful emotionally. Increase content exposure to pleasant things.
2. Look for silver linings. For example, if you are staying home, is it spending time with your children or your pets, gardening, etc.? Cook a special meal or chocolate chip cookies. Work outside if it’s a nice day. Take that 15-minute break and go for a walk. Play more card games or board games. Eat virtual meals with friends. Connect with a friend you have not talked with recently.
3. Focus on what you can control, and try to let go of what you can’t. Take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. Write at the top what is causing you stress. On the left column, write “What I can control”, and on the right column, write “What I can’t control”. Put your efforts into the things you can control, and don’t waste time and energy on what you can’t. Do things that make you feel effective. At the end of the day, note the things you have accomplished.
4. Start a gratitude journal. Write down 3 things each day you are grateful for, and write down different ones every day. Do this for at least 3 weeks. 21 days of gratitude journaling has been found to be an effective antidepressant for more than a year.
5. Limit junk food intake. When you are stressed, sugar, salt, and fat taste much better; unfortunately, they also make your body feel worse. Limit all processed foods, and use fresh or frozen foods as much as possible. Remember that food is mood, and if you want to feel good, you have to eat well. Your body will thank you.
6. Focus on what you can do now, and don’t worry about what you have to do tomorrow. It will come anyway, and you can focus on it then. If you worry, then set aside 15-30 minutes for Worry Time. When it comes, just worry, and only worry. The rest of your day, focus on what you can do today. If worries come, write them down and worry about them tomorrow during your Worry Time.
7. Be kind to yourself. Say nice things to yourself. Remind yourself that you are doing as much as you can. Remind yourself that this will pass. Take those 15-minute breaks instead of working.
8. Get 3-4 hours of aerobic exercise every week, at least 30 minutes at a time split into at least 3 different days. Exercise is a natural antidepressant. Try to get some of it outside, especially in the morning, as morning sunlight is also a natural antidepressant. Walk, run, or bicycle. Get some fresh air.
9. Practice mindfulness meditation every day. Daily meditation lasting 20-45 minutes for 8 weeks has been shown to change your brain, leading it to become calmer in the face of stress. Use a free meditation app to guide you like the VA Mindfulness Coach app or Stop, Breathe, and Think, or go online for guided mindfulness meditations.
10. Get 6.5-7.5 hours of sleep each night. Less sleep than that makes you irritable, tired, less productive, and less effective. Try not to nap more than 20 minutes/day, as that disrupts your sleep cycle. Try to be consistent about when you go to bed and when you wake up; your body likes routine.
11. Plan at least one pleasant thing to do every day. Most of the time, nice things don’t just happen to you. If you don’t plan it, it won’t happen. Make a list of things you enjoy doing so that you can easily choose among them. Take this opportunity to do things you have wanted to do, but you haven’t gotten to yet.
12. Self-soothe with your senses. Look at pretty pictures and pictures and videos of people, places, and pets that you love. Listen to calming or uplifting music, and avoid the blues and angry music. Fill your home with smells like those from candles, scents, and foods. Savor your favorite foods, eating them slowly, and really tasting them. Take long baths and pet your pets for at least 20 minutes. Petting a dog for 20 minutes has been shown to lower your heart rate and blood pressure, so it decreases your stress level. Your dog will love you for it, too.
13. Engage in a hobby that has nothing to do with work or relationships. That way, when other things in your life are stressful or not going well, you can still enjoy your hobby. If you don’t have a hobby, it’s a great time to start one. Try doing something you’ve always wanted to do.
14. Practice yoga. It has both physical and mental health benefits, such as reducing anxiety and depression. Your body will thank you and you will feel better. You can find thousands of yoga videos on YouTube to follow along.
15. Everyone needs at least one person in whom you can confide: a family member, friend, minister, priest, rabbi, or therapist. Talk with them about how you are feeling. Use the one you have, or reach out to someone. Whoever it is, they need to be a good listener and nonjudgmental.
16. Ask yourself two important questions: What gives you joy? What gives you meaning? Make lists for each. Increase the amount of time you spend doing both. Decrease the amount of time that you do things that are not on these lists and not things you have to do.
17. Develop a self-care action plan. Split it into five sections: mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. Do at least one thing from the plan each day, and one thing from each category each week. Use the ideas above to help you come up with your action plan, and add things that are helpful to you.