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10 science-backed strategies to try if you’re stressed about COVID-19

A stress management expert explains the simplest things to do to ease anxiety during the pandemic.

10 science-backed strategies to try if you’re stressed about COVID-19
[Photo: madison lavern/Unsplash]

If you find it hard to stay calm during this COVID-19 pandemic, you are not alone. From the constant news updates telling you about the most recent death counts or border closings to the long lines at your local grocery store and the stock market gyrations, it is hard not to feel the effects of this health crisis. If you are lucky, your business can still be run remotely without much impact on your bottom line. But if you are in the hospitality, restaurant, travel or event business, it’s having a serious effect.

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No matter who you are, feeling stressed and afraid is a normal response to an illness about which there is still so much to learn and a health crisis for which the country seems unprepared. But even if you don’t succumb to the coronavirus, the chronic stress that may result from constant fear and anxiety about the illness, and the isolation caused by social distancing and quarantine, can cause physical symptoms of its own.

Common symptoms of chronic stress include headaches, insomnia, muscle tension, stomach distress such as heartburn and acid reflux, and joint pain. You may also experience behavioral symptoms such as increased smoking, eating or drinking, and emotional symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, or depression. The demands of social distancing may mean that your usual stress management strategies such as going to the gym or hanging out with loved ones are no longer accessible to you. So here are some stress management techniques to get through the next few weeks or until life goes back to some sense of normalcy.

1. Breathe

Taking slow deep breaths is a great way to calm down your entire body and your mind. To do this, close your eyes and take in a deep breath through your nose on a count of five, hold for a count of three, then breathe out through your mouth on a count of five. Repeat five times. Do this any time you feel stressed, to start your day in the right mood, and to get calm at the end of your day so you can get a good night’s sleep.

2. Practice mindfulness

Focusing on breath is a simple start. You can also meditate with or without a mantra.

3. Go outside

If you are one of the millions of people now working from home, and the weather is amenable, find a spot outside to take the laptop and the phone calls. This will help keep the stir crazies away.

4. Limit social media and news consumption

Yes, you want to stay up-to-date on the latest news about the virus or the stock market, but listening to the news all day-everyday is going to exacerbate any feelings of anxiety, stress, or sadness. Check the news and social media at set times of the day, and limit yourself to 15 minutes at a time. And when you get on social media, spend some time on things that make you smile or laugh, and touch your heart in some way.

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5. Exercise–and do it outside

You need to exercise more than ever now. Take a walk, ride a bike, go for a run, take the yoga mat outside, or do some calisthenics in your backyard. Movement releases the pleasure hormone dopamine, which makes us feel good, and fresh air and sunshine are also great for boosting your mood. But remember to keep your distance. So go outside early in the morning or late in the evening, stay in your neighborhood, and forego public parks and trails.

6. Connect with loved ones

If you live with others, now is a great time to spend some quality time together. Bring out the board games and the puzzles. Have long conversations. Call that friend or cousin you haven’t spoken to in months. Do mindfulness exercises together. And if you find yourself needing some personal space, then formally structure some alone time for everyone so you don’t annoy each other too much.

7. Get your financial house in order

Do your taxes. Go through your bank and credit card statements and cancel those unwanted subscriptions. Cancel travel plans. Make a budget. Manage your investments.

8. Get creative

If you find yourself with a lot of time on your hands, skip the binge-worthy series on Netflix and start that art or crafting or household project you haven’t had time to do. Indulging your creativity is an excellent distraction and a great way to de-stress. Knit, paint, sew, or create a photo book of your last vacation.

9. Journal

Put your feelings and thoughts down on paper. This is a historic time and this won’t just help you process your emotions in the present but help you put this time in context later.

10. Practice gratitude

It can be easy to focus on all the negatives that result from dealing with a pandemic, so being deliberate in being grateful is a great way to counteract the negativity. Start and end each day by stating–or journaling–at least three things you are grateful for. Research shows that this increases feelings of optimism.

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For organizations that want to help employees manage stress during this challenging period, start meetings with a one-sentence or one-word check-in. Set up online drop-in support groups. Provide online stress management workshops.

It’s important to remember that this period of crisis is temporary, and if we all take the appropriate public health steps to reduce the likelihood of infection, the pandemic will slow down and life will get back to normal sooner rather than later. So wash your hands frequently, wear a mask if you are sick, stay six feet away from each other, and keep calm and carry on.


Ruth C. White, PhD, MPH, MSW is a clinical associate professor of the Suzanne Dworack Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. She is the author of The Stress Management Workbook and the forthcoming Everyday Stress Relief.

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