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Published on March 31, 2020

Stressed out? Here are ways to keep your sanity

COVID Stress

The battle against COVID-19 has at least one side effect that doesn’t show up on a test: stress.

As we hunker down and follow orders to self-isolate, we cut ourselves off from many of the day-to-day things that help us navigate life, such as the structure of daily routine and face-to-face contact with friends and family. And, sometimes events or people in our homes add to our anxiety rather than alleviate it.

“It’s a whole different world isn’t it?” said psychiatrist Cathy Perkins, MD, medical director of emergency psychiatry services at Cape Cod Hospital. “People have to remind themselves that this is temporary and that they can get through it.”

That doesn’t mean isolating ourselves from one another is easy, psychologically. Ordinary people and healthcare workers quarantined during other pandemics have suffered anxiety, depression, anger, irritability and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that sometimes lasted months, according to a recent review of research published in the Lancet. Meanwhile, people who are already suffering from mental illness or addiction may find it complicated to access their usual support services. That puts a bigger burden on their families and caregivers.

What can we do to manage our own mental as well as our physical health? How can we make sheltering-in-place viable and safe for ourselves and our families?

Those who are already receiving treatment may be able to still connect with a therapist or group through technology. For example, Cape Cod Healthcare’s Centers for Behavioral Health is working with established and new patients via telephone and video conferencing.

The rest of us, Dr. Perkins said, might start by considering this strange time as a chance to slow down.

“It could be an opportunity for a different way of doing things,” she said. “A different way to think. I’m learning to sit still with myself and not be constantly on the go or entertained with events and activities.”

De-stressing Tips

Here are some other ideas from Dr. Perkins for maintaining your mental balance:

  • Set your news boundary. “Everybody has to decide what limit they have and how much news they can watch or should watch.”
  • Cut yourself some slack. “Just allow yourself to have that downtime and to sit on your couch, watching TV or reading or doing whatever it is you might not normally do on a regular Monday or Tuesday.”
  • Give each other some space. If there are others in your household, make a plan for how everyone is going to get some time for themselves. “Try to negotiate those private times that would help certain family members or all family members.”
  • Identify your support system. “It might not be within your family. It might be your neighbor down the street or it might be a co-worker who you can’t see because you’re not at work.” Make time to email, text or video chat with the people you rely on. “I do think there’s something to the Facetime part of it, where you can see the person or hear them, and you realize you’re having a connection with them.”
  • Be sure to exercise. There’s lots of research that exercise boosts mood. “The weather’s getting better so even walking outside, running outside, biking outside, we can do those things safely.” Can’t get out? Many gyms and YMCAs are offering online classes for all ability levels.
  • Use the tools you can access. Things like mindfulness and meditation apps can help calm anxiety.
  • Reach out to others. Altruism makes us focus on something beyond our own worries and relieves stress. “Try to identify people who you think are having a harder time than you, whether that’s an elderly person living nearby or a family that you know who is having difficulty for whatever reason.” Offer to drop off food or grocery shop. Send a card. Call to chat.
  • Know the danger signs that suggest you or a family member needs professional help. The Centers for Disease Control lists feelings of numbness, disbelief, anxiety or fear; changes in appetite or energy; difficulty concentrating; sleeping too much or too little; worsening or chronic health problems; anger and other mood changes; and increased use of drugs or alcohol. Call 911 if you consider someone an immediate risk to themselves or others.

Below is a list of other resources in our community for finding support or help