How to cope with coronavirus disease (COVID-19) anxiety & stress

Written by Emily Ornberg, Clinically reviewed by Amy Magill, MA, RDN and Jen Matz, MPH Dec 19, 2022 • 8 min

In the midst of worry and uncertainty surrounding the global coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, how can you find a way to cope?

Amid the threat of the unknown, loss of control, indefinite isolation, panic over scarce resources and information overload, fear and anxiety during a pandemic can be overwhelming—and remarkably common.

Without access to common coping mechanisms such as exercising at the gym, going out with friends or doing other meaningful activities, finding relief from stress can feel insurmountable. But resiliency and coping through tough times can make you, the people you care about and your community stronger.

How stress can impact our health

Everyone reacts differently to difficult situations. Understanding how stress impacts you can help you manage it. Stress during a pandemic might lead to unhealthy consequences, such as changes in sleep or eating patterns, trouble concentrating, worsening of chronic health conditions and increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. Over time, stress can lead to additional health complications.

How stress can impact those with preexisting mental illness

Similar to how people with serious underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, those with preexisting mental health conditions are more likely to experience worsening mental health as a result of the pandemic. For example, severe anxiety can trigger a panic attack. A panic attack is different from feeling stressed or anxious—it’s an abrupt onset of intense fear, anxiety or discomfort that lasts several minutes and may feel like a heart attack. To manage any mental health condition during this time, follow your treatment plan as prescribed by your health care provider, including continuing to take medications as directed. Also, focus on what tends to work for you to ease your fears or stress, know that you can to take steps to calm yourself, and reach out to your provider if needed—or chat with a therapist via video chat.

How social media impacts our mental health

The ever-shifting news has some people constantly checking their phones for updates and sharing their feelings with others. As we continue social distancing, conversations about mental health on social media have seen up to a 750% increase month-over-month.

Constant information about the pandemic can be overwhelming and upsetting. And constantly searching for answers to find a way to control an uncontrollable situation can add more stress. But social media can have positive effects, too. Connecting with others media can help people feel heard and supported, especially in a time of social isolation. Try to take breaks from the news or negative social media, and when sharing, try to share some positive news, too. It can help others by lightening their day.

7 ways to help reduce stress during the COVID-19 outbreak

1. Connect with loved ones.

While anxiety can naturally lead pulling inward (and tending to ourselves is important), cultivating a sense of community and connectedness can help ease stress. Continue to connect with loved ones even if you can't be near them. Eat dinner or watch your favorite shows over video chat so you can feel like you're together.

2. Make a "me time" menu.

Create a list of personal self-care activities that you enjoy, such as meditating, hobbies or reading a book. While connecting with others can help, alone time can help you recharge and find inner peace.

3. Take care of your body.

Take deep breaths, meditate, exercise regularly, eat healthy meals and get plenty of sleep—these healthy habits can help lessen stress and anxiety. Avoid turning to alcohol, tobacco or drugs as a way cope.

4. Problem solve instead of worrying.

You may be worried about catching the virus, losing your job or watching your kids fall behind without school. The more you worry and think about the "what ifs", the more anxious you may feel. While you can't stop worrisome thoughts from entering your mind, you can change how you respond to them. Instead of worrying, solve the potential problems. If you're anxious about paying the bills if you lose your job, for example, think of ways you can cut costs now and take action.

5. Focus on the facts.

While many people are becoming infected with COVID-19, know that if you do get the virus, the majority of people have mild to moderate symptoms and recover on their own. Continuing to practice social distancing and taking other protective measures, including frequent handwashing and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth, can reduce your risk of getting sick.

6. Be productive.

If the pandemic has left you with extra time on your hands, focus on being productive and accomplishing things. Do things you've been meaning to do but haven't had the time for, such as cleaning out your garage or organizing your pantry. Or use online resources to learn a new hobby or skill, like gardening, cooking, knitting or speaking a new language.

7. Reach out to health care providers.

If you, or someone you care about, is feeling overwhelmed with emotions or if stress gets in the way of your daily activities for several days in a row, contact a health care provider. Schedule a virtual therapy consultation or call Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Finding the light through darkness

It's normal to feel stressed, anxious, scared or worried during a pandemic. Taking action to reduce stress can help protect you from anxiety and keep you from feeling overwhelmed.

If you have anxiety, depression or another mental health condition, it's important to continue to follow your treatment plan as prescribed by your health care provider. Monitor yourself for any new symptoms, and let your provider know about any changes.

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