How to Ease Anxiety and Find Calm During the Coronavirus Outbreak

With COVID-19 spreading uncertainty everywhere, it’s hard not to feel more anxious and stressed than usual. But letting emotions and worries spin can be downright bad for your health. Take charge with strategies to help control your body’s high-alert system.

WHAT DOES STRESS LOOK LIKE?

Fear and worry affect people differently, so the first step to easing anxiety is keeping your radar up for signals. You might have trouble sleeping and staying focused. You might let healthy eating habits slide or drink more than usual. If you have a mental or chronic health condition, it might be harder to manage. Maybe you feel down more often or get irritated more easily. Kids and teens often give different clues, like acting more clingy or cranky, complaining of frequent stomach pain or headaches, and melting down more often.

KEEP AN OPEN MIND AND BE READY TO EXPERIMENT

Stress shows up in many different ways. But there are a multitude of strategies you can turn to. You might find one that works right away, or you might need to test a few to find your favorites.

Avoid information overload. During the outbreak, it’s important to stay informed with the latest news and guidelines. But too much news can push you into hyper-worry. Try limiting yourself to 30 minutes of news coverage a day, or one update a day, like a daily briefing from your state government or a trusted source like the Centers for Disease Control or Harvard Medical School Coronavirus Resource Center.

Control what you can. Hand washing, cleaning, staying home, and staying a safe physical distance from others are all steps we know help protect us from the virus. Getting plenty of sleep, eating right, and staying active are also important and in your power to manage.

Be more mindful. Sitting quietly and focusing only on breathing slowly in and out—even for just five to 10 minutes—is a simple act with amazing calming power. If that’s not your style, try one of these:

  • Play music. Get comfortable, then keep your attention trained on what you hear. If your mind wanders, bring it back to the music. You can even try to isolate the sound of one instrument.
  • Color. Use a coloring page or just doodle with colored pens or makers on paper. Concentrate on shape, color, and pattern, and let everything else fall away.
  • Body scan. In a comfortable lying position, clench the muscles in your toes. Hold and for a count of five, then release. Next flex your feet, pushing away with your heels. Hold for five, and release. Repeat this for different muscles groups, working your way up to your head. Finish by squeezing every muscle in your body tightly, holding for five, and releasing. Notice what feels different.
  • Nature walk. Go out for (socially distanced) walk and pick a sensation to lock onto: the sound of bird song, the feel of wind on your skin, the scent of trees or grass, or the rhythm of your steps.

Stay social. Anxiety gets more fuel from isolation and loneliness, so reach out to friends and family often by phone or video chat. Invite friends to join you virtually at dinner time or over dessert. Set up a weekly date to check in with far away family members. Reach out to friends when you need support. Level-headed friends who are good listeners are especially helpful in this time, because they’re apt to help tamp down your rising emotions, instead of heightening them.

Help others. This benefits others who are struggling and gives your mental health a boost, too. Make a cheerful sign and post it outside your house. Check with your community services center and ask about local needs. Donate to a food pantry. Pick up trash during neighborhood walks. Shelter a homeless pet.

HOW TO HELP KIDS

Though toddlers and teenagers will obviously react differently and have different needs during this time, these tips work for kids of any age.

  • Structure the day. Kids crave normalcy— now more than ever. Especially during the week, keep regular mealtimes and bedtimes. Build a schedule with breaks for fun, physical activity, creativity, social connection with video or phone, chores, and downtime. 
  • Accent the positive. Notice and affirm good behaviors. Gather the family each day and ask each person to share something he or she is grateful for or a happy moment from the day.
  • Avoid spreading worry. Traveling the “what if?” road in front of your kids is likely to make them more anxious. Record these thoughts in a journal instead.
  • Practice the stress-busting strategies above. Every time you act to ease stress for yourself, you’re setting an example they can follow.
  • Create 1-on-1 time. Find a way to share special screen-free time with each child, even if it’s just 10 to 20 minutes a few times a week.

KNOW WHEN TO ASK FOR HELP

If worry and overwhelming feelings disrupt your day for a string of several days, call your primary care provider. Keep these phone numbers handy in case of a crisis situation:

  • 911
  • Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990, or text TalkWithUs to 66746
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255