Coping with the stress of COVID-19

March 16, 2020

By Heather Shannon

The global outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-2019) is having an impact on the mental health of millions of people.

Thanks to a 24-hour news cycle, near-constant social media use, empty store shelves and a flood of inaccurate information, reports of anxiety, fear and uncertainty are on the rise. 

These fears can be overwhelming and lead to strong emotions in both children and adults, says UCI Health psychiatrist Dr. Rimal Bera

“Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations,” he says, noting that how an emergency affects a person’s mental health can depend on a number of factors, including:

  • Their past experiences
  • Their personal characteristics
  • Their social and economic circumstances
  • The social and economic circumstances of the community
  • The availability of local resources

Signs of emotional distress

Research has shown that people can become more distressed when exposed to repeated imagery or reports in the media about the outbreak. In fact, UCI psychologist E. Alison Holman, PhD, says such imagery can trigger symptoms that resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Reactions that signal stress include:

  • Fear and worry about your own health status and that of your loved ones who may have been exposed to COVID-19
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs

People with preexisting medical or mental health conditions should continue with their treatment plans during this outbreak and monitor for any new symptoms.

Call your healthcare provider if stress reactions interfere with your daily activities for several days in a row.

How to take care of your mental health

  • Watch what you watch. Avoid excessive exposure to media coverage of COVID-19. It can be upsetting to hear about the crisis and see images repeatedly.
  • Take care of your body and spirit. Take deep breaths, stretch or meditate. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced mealsexercise regularlyget plenty of sleep and avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Make time to unwind. Remind yourself that strong feelings will fade. Try to do activities you enjoy and maintain as much normalcy as possible..
  • Maintain a sense of hope and positive thinking.
  • You’re not alone. Know that feeling stressed, depressed, guilty, or angry is common.
  • Connect with others. Share your concerns and how you are feeling with a friend or family member.
  • Connect with others who may be experiencing stress about the outbreak. Talk about your feelings about the outbreak, share reliable health information and enjoy conversation related to the outbreak.

Signs a child is feeling stress

Children react, in part, on what they see from the adults around them.

When parents and caregivers deal with the COVID-19 calmly and confidently, they can provide the best support for their children. Parents can be more reassuring to others around them, especially children, if they are better prepared.

Not all children respond to stress in the same way, notes Bera.

Some common changes to watch for in children:

  • Excessive crying and irritation
  • Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (e.g., toileting accidents or bedwetting) 
  • Excessive worry or sadness 
  • Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits 
  • Irritability and “acting out” behaviors 
  • Poor school performance or avoiding school 
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration 
  • Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
  • Unexplained headaches or body pain 
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs

Talking about COVID-19

There are a number of things you can do to help your children make sense of what’s happening, Bera says: 

  • Take time to talk with your child about the COVID-19 outbreak. Answer questions and share facts about COVID-19 in a way that your child can understand.
  • Reassure your child that they are safe.
  • Let them know if is OK if they feel upset.
  • Share with them how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn how to cope from you.
  • Limit your child’s exposure to media coverage of the event. Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand.
  • Help your child to have a sense of structure. Once it is safe to return to school or childcare, help them return to their regular activity.
  • Be a role model. Take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise and eat well. Connect with your friends and family members and rely on your social support system.

Working or quarantined at home? 

Whether you’re being quarantined because of possible COVID-19 exposure or you’re staying home for social distancing, being confined can feel lonely and stressful for many, even if they don’t get sick, says Bera. 

Some typical reactions after being released from COVID-19 quarantine can include:

  • Mixed emotions, including relief after quarantine
  • Fear and worry about your own health status and that of your loved ones who may have been exposed to COVID-19
  • Stress from the experience of monitoring yourself, or being monitored by others for signs and symptoms of COVID-19
  • Sadness, anger or frustration because friends or loved ones have unfounded fears of contracting the disease from contact with you, even though you have been determined not to be contagious
  • Guilt about not being able to perform normal work or parenting duties during quarantine

Keeping up a disrupted routine 

While you’re away from work at your regular routine, it can be easy to slip into bad habits. A few tips to help you stay on track: 

  • Understand that this is a short-term situation and you will be back at work soon.
  • Try to complete the same amount of work each day that you would if you were at work.
  • See the positive side: You may be able to complete projects that you have not been able to do during normal work or complete items that you were behind on.
  • Keep in contact with your supervisor and coworkers about any tasks they would like completed. Give people updates on how you are doing. Contact by email or phone.
  • Use the time to relax: Eat a good meal, read, listen to music, take a bath or talk to family.