Addressing COVID-19 Stress & Anxiety
The outbreak of COVID-19 may be causing stress, fear and anxiety for some people. Stress and axiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. How a person responds to a situation can depend on their background, culture, social environments, family and communities. The CDC provides information on Stress & Coping. We suggest also visiting our page on Culturally Responsive Care and our Parenting Resources page.
This list was created by Dr. Allyson Cherkasky, associate professor in the William James College Counseling and Behavioral Health Department and director of the College's Health and Behavioral Medicine Concentration.
- Validate feelings of fear and anxiety as normal. There is a significant amount of anxiety that we are experiencing, individually and collectively, due to spread of the virus, loss of lives, economic downfall, political divisiveness, social isolation, and being prevented from engaging in our everyday routines.
- Don’t suppress your emotions, but don’t be engulfed by them. We know that escaping our emotions via alcohol and substance use, food, shopping, etc, creates more problems over time. Allow yourself to feel what you feel (e.g. fear, grief, confusion, sadness, anxiety, a sense of loss of control) and remember that emotions are like waves, they crest and fall.
- Focus on what IS in your control. Work to differentiate what is in your control (e.g., social distancing, washing your hands, limit travel, adaptive responses to uncertainty, kindness and compassion) vs what is beyond our control (e.g., the spread of virus, lost lives, confusing messages, political and economic strife, others’ responses).
- Limit news. Get what you need to stay informed but not overwhelmed. Find ways to circumscribe consumption of news. For example, one colleague I know glances at news headlines or reads 2 articles in the morning and then again for half hour later in day. It is strongly recommended to not tune into news before bed.
- Social distance but don’t emotionally distance. It is challenging not to be with the people we love, see our colleagues at work, or do all the things we do day to day. Make sure you stay connected with others by Facetime, Skype, Zoom, telephone calls, etc. Perhaps even consider writing letters expressing your appreciation and love to important people in your life.
- Diaphragmatic breathing; keep breathing “low and slow.” We know that breathing from the diaphragm activates our parasympathetic nervous system. This counteracts the fight-or-flight response that occurs when we are feeling stressed, anxious or afraid. Do this for 5-10 minutes twice a day. If you want, you can build on this and try various other relaxation/meditation exercises. There are many websites, videos, YouTube. Perhaps try several types (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, nature sounds, etc) and see what you like best.
- Practice Mindfulness. This is the simple process of tuning in and being present to this very moment. Tune in to all your senses (taste, smell, touch, see, hear) to fully take in what you are doing right now, whether folding your laundry, listening to a loved one, walking, or eating. Take breaks from your phone and electronic devices.
- Use this time To Go Deeper. With many types of adversity, this is an opportunity to foster resilience, to become better, stronger, kinder rather than bitter. Journal, pray, meditate on compassion and loving kindness to oneself and others, practice gratitude, read poetry or a meaningful book, see how you can be of service to someone else. Something seemingly small (e.g. picking up something at grocery store for someone who can’t go out, or calling to say hello) can make a tremendous difference in another’s life.
- Engage in Self-Care. If we are not taking care of ourselves, it is very hard to be there for others. What are some of those things you’ve wanted/needed to do but never seem to find the time? Make a list and start doing these things.
- Pillars of Wellness. In order to maintain our physical and emotional well-being, practice essential wellness principles. There is clear science behind each of these:
- Healthy Diet
- Restorative Sleep
- Stress Reduction/Relaxation Exercises
- Social Connection and Community
- Meaningful Activity
- Decrease Alcohol and Substance Use (if problematic)
- Stop Smoking
- Practice Gratitude.
- *If you are dealing with a lot of anxiety, consider weaning down on caffeine intake
For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), this crisis is particularly difficult because it can be hard to decide which behaviors are “reasonable” and which reflect excess anxiety. This APA post recommends some strategies psychologists can recommend to their patients with OCD.
In this special audio series, Dr. Julie L. Ryan, associate professor of Clinical Psychology and director of the Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience Concentration, and Dr. Nadja Reilly, clinical psychologist and associate director of the Freedman Center for Child and Family Development offer tips for caregivers on managing their own anxiety, and their child's anxiety, during this stressful time.
Clips are presented in short segments of around 2-3 minutes each, and can be listened to as a series or by topic. Find the playlist and listen here.
"Exploring Individual and Collective Intersections between the Crisis and Adult Development," webinar with Dr. Robert G. Kegan, the William and Miriam Meehan Research Professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Dr. Lisa Lahey, founder of Minds at Work. This webinar is divided into two parts:
- How can we better stay connected to ourselves and to others in a time of crisis? "All of this starts with awareness, noticing our feelings, our reactions. That is what makes it possible for us to have a relationship to those feelings. By contrast, when we are unaware of our feelings, they are in charge...Noticing our feelings, though, means we can step aside from them, to whatever degree, and we can look at them...And that move is what animates all developmental shifts, no matter how small." - Dr. Lisa Lahey
- How can we better realize the transformational potential of this global pandemic? "We were a sick world before the virus. The systems which we have created -- which in many ways have been an enormous advance to human evolution -- those systems are clearly not able to solve our current problems. The virus has the potential to show us even more deeply that we are first of all members of one single vulnerable species just trying to make its way on one single fragile planet. The more that we come to experience that, the bigger is the transformative potential--that these systems, valuable though they may be, are just constructions." - Dr. Robert Kegan