As the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded over the past several weeks, the whole world seems to be sharing a mutually bewildered look. We’ve never faced a global health crisis of this scale, and uncertainty — as well as the fear, anxiety, and stress it brings along — runs high.
While scientists and medical professionals across the world fight tirelessly to address the threat we’re now faced with, citizens are doing their part to slow the virus’s spread through measures like social distancing and self-quarantine. These measures require drastic shifts in lifestyle, and resigning oneself to relative isolation without a clear end date in sight is, unsurprisingly, difficult. Among the many challenges related to COVID-19 is an absence of clear predictions about how or when the pandemic will run its course.
Finding ways to manage stress in a time of uncertainty is as essential as it is difficult. So much about this current situation is out of the average person’s control, and it can be hard to know how to cope. This article shares several stress management techniques that can help mitigate the looming feelings of dread many people are experiencing as the world fights COVID-19.
8 Ways to Manage Stress in a Time of Uncertainty
The strategies recommended below won’t eliminate the bigger problem the world is currently dealing with, but they can help you personally stay on top of your mental, physical, and emotional health. This enables you to support the parts of your world you can control much more effectively while the parts that you can’t control continue to play out.
1. Move Every Day
Under normal circumstances, maybe you start your morning at the gym, head into the office a few hours later, walk a couple blocks midday to grab lunch, stop by the grocery store on your way home, and spend a couple hours at a bar before the day is over. When you’re social distancing (especially if you live alone), you might start your day in your bedroom, head into the living room, walk a couple steps to the bathroom, and maybe venture out to the kitchen for a change of scenery midday. With restricted travel between locations comes a steep drop off in the amount of physical activity you get each day, and your body will notice the difference.
To avoid feelings of lethargy when self-quarantining, make a concerted effort to move several times a day. The internet in the age of COVID-19 is spilling over with at-home workouts for people at any fitness level. Pick something you enjoy, and find pleasure in the time you carve out each day for movement. Fitness expert Joe Holder even recommends breaking up your day with “exercise snacks” — unlike a formal 50 or 60 minute workout, exercise snacks are short bursts of movement that can help keep energy high by breaking up an otherwise sedentary day.
2. Practice Mindfulness
Over the past several years, there’s been a surge in popularity of mindfulness practices like meditation throughout Western cultures. Now is the time to apply the skills those practices teach, or to hop on the trend if you haven’t already.
The general practice of meditation involves taking note of one’s experience without judging or attempting to change the situation. As feelings, thoughts, and sensations come and go, the meditator simply observes. For some people, this practice is nothing short of transcendent, and for others, it’s a realistic strategy to manage difficult mental states. The practice is particularly applicable in situations of uncertainty, as it involves relinquishing control. If you’re having trouble dealing with the uncertainty inherent to this global pandemic, meditation can be a good way to cope.
3. Eat Well
Eating well means different things for different people. For one person, it might mean focusing on nutrition and adhering to a balanced, plant-based diet while self-quarantining. For someone else, eating well may mean indulging in the sweet rewards of a day spent baking — yes, there’s less nutritional value in a slice of chocolate chip banana bread than an actual banana, but sometimes the emotional nourishment is the real thing you need. For still others, eating well might be less about what food they’re consuming and more about where it comes from. Helping local restaurants and cafes stay afloat through this difficult economic time by ordering takeout is yet another form of eating “well.”
Pay attention to what food makes you feel good and eat accordingly. It’s another way to minimize stress for yourself (and in some cases, your community) during quarantine.
4. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is one of the body’s most basic physical needs, and if you’re not getting enough, you’re not operating at full capacity. This is true normally, and it’s certainly true in the midst of a global pandemic.
Care for yourself in this crisis by committing to a healthy sleep routine. Do your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. If possible, keep those times close to what they would be under regular circumstances to maintain a sense of normalcy. The body’s natural sleep-wake cycle comes with a steady rhythm and it’s best to work with — not against — this biological programming.
If you’re having trouble sleeping due to pandemic-inspired anxiety, implement other sleep hygiene tips like avoiding screen time before bed and not using your bed as a desk, dining room, or sofa.
5. Fall Back on Old Habits …
While many routines have been necessarily interrupted by coronavirus, you should try to maintain what rituals and habits you can. In some cases, these might not be things you would normally think of as “habits.” For example, getting dressed for work in the morning or eating meals at regular times.
Think through the repeated practices that keep you feeling good when things are normal — maybe it’s a skin care routine, weekly calls to your parents, or meatless Mondays. Where it’s realistic, try to maintain these habits or create virtual versions of them. Although many of the pillars of what we call “normal life” are crumbling, a few tried-and-true habits can create a framework of relative normalcy to help sustain you through stressful times.
6. … And Create Meaningful New Habits
It’s also important to recognize that we’re dealing with an entirely new reality and there’s abundant opportunity to make it meaningful with habits you wouldn’t normally have time for.
One difficult thing to deal with when quarantining is the looming feeling that the coming weeks (or months) are nothing but lost time. While it’s tempting to believe this, it’s only true if you let it be.
Don’t pressure yourself to write the world’s next great novel or achieve incredible feats of engineering while you wait out the quarantine — but do pay attention to what activities you find intrinsic enjoyment in. Take this period as an opportunity to do more of those things. Maybe you will pick up a paintbrush for the first time in years, indulge in your wildest culinary whims, or finally start learning a new language. You may not be able to use this time in the way you would normally like to, but you can still use it.
7. Connect With Others
While slowing the spread of COVID-19 means all but eliminating normal social interactions, it doesn’t mean we can’t socialize at all. We’re lucky to be experiencing this global pandemic in an age where technology makes it possible to virtually interact with loved ones without physically leaving home.
To manage stress in this time of uncertainty, be intentional about staying socially connected despite physical separation. You can create virtual versions of the activities that normally feed your social needs, like video happy hours or game nights. It might not come naturally, but taking measures like these can help alleviate the sadness many people are feeling about being stuck at home.
8. Reframe Negative Thoughts
This time spent in physical isolation from one another is ultimately going to be whatever we choose to make it. You can expect the worst and wallow in the fact that this horrible series of events is unfolding, or you can make an effort to rewrite your thoughts more positively. Not to be confused with toxic positivity, this suggestion takes a more pragmatic approach to framing tough circumstances.
Keep a watchful eye out for repetitive thought loops like “This is never going to end” and try to remember this will eventually be a blip in long-past history. If possible, try to identify positives about the situation. These might be short-term benefits, like time for introspection and taking on personal projects, or they might be more long-term, like the prospect of positive global policy shifts when this is all over.
It’s important to note that this tip is absolutely not meant to push you towards disingenuous positivity. As harmful as repetitive negative thoughts can be, it’s also hugely detrimental to never let yourself feel the less pleasant feelings that come from this difficult experience. Give yourself space and time to process everything that’s going on, but try not to get stuck in those thoughts — if you do end up feeling stuck, the eight tips above can help pull you out.
At the end of the day, the only way we’re going to get through this is to get through it. Some days will be hard, and others less so, but every day is a step forward. As time passes, we move a little bit closer to whatever light lays obscured at the end of this trying tunnel. One day at a time, you, your family, your company, your country, and the rest of the world will get through this — together.
Katerina Mery is a Marketing Specialist at Fond with a background in cognitive psychology and a passion for improving the way people live and work. She especially enjoys learning about how to accomplish this through rewards and recognition. In her spare time, you can find Katerina running outside, admiring art, and exploring the latest and greatest local restaurants.