In addition to cooking and outdoor runs, what I like to call “sad naps” have become a quarantine pastime of mine. Of course, I realize that this isn’t healthy, but the COVID-19 pandemic has presented countless mental health challenges for myself and literally millions of others. For this reason, I've incorporated some strategies for dealing with the stress that has steadily increased over the past five months or so.
According to Pew Research Center, more than one-third of Americans have exhibited signs of clinical anxiety, depression, or both since the pandemic began. The CDC has dedicated an entire page specifically to coronavirus and mental health, and COVID-specific wellness companies and startups have sprung up in reaction to this pandemic-inspired issue (www.virusanxiety.com is now a thing).
“Quarantine is isolating by design, which can be incredibly challenging for those who suffer from anxiety and depression,” Allison Johnsen, LCPC, BCC, manager of behavioral health at Central DuPage Hospital, tells TZR. “Some people with depression have a tendency to self-isolate in the first place, and those with anxiety tend to worry about the future. And right now, there’s a legitimate danger.”
Dr. Vassilia Binensztok, licensed and board-certified mental health counselor, echoed that sentiment, adding that “quarantine can exacerbate existing mental health disorders, or inflame symptoms that were manageable before,” she explains. “Social distancing doesn’t just mean FaceTime dates with friends and family — we’re cut off from hundreds of small, daily interactions that have a positive impact on our mood and sense of connection.”
Like many others, I’ve been managing my stress and anxiety during COVID with a host of strategies old and new. Below, find my go-to techniques, plus expert insights from Johnsen and Binensztok.
Strategies For Dealing With Stress: Shift Your Perspective
One of my biggest turning points with anxiety occurred when I realized that I have some control over it — whether it’s through breath work, running, or journaling. The feeling will pass, just like any other emotion or mood. “People who suffer from anxiety want clarity, certainty, and a plan. Finding strategies that can help you manage symptoms is incredibly helpful in regaining that sense of control,” says Johnsen.
One technique she offers is to name your worry personality. “When I was really in the throes of self-recrimination and panic, I named my worrier Lois,” she shares. “This technique is helpful because you’re creating some space between you and the worry; it becomes something that’s merely influencing you. By personifying it, your ‘real self’ has some control.”
Strategies For Dealing With Stress: Distract, Distract, Distract
As a person who is plagued by overthinking, I’ve found solace in distraction therapy, or throwing myself into positive activities to distract my mind from unhelpful, anxious thoughts. “In quarantine, there’s a lot of alone time and therefore a lot of time to think," says Johnson. "For someone with anxiety, that thinking can quickly turn negative. It’s important to create structure and draw yourself out of that mindset." She recommends finding a deeply engrossing activity that makes you feel calm, like working out, reading, painting, gardening, cooking, or walking outside. “If you keep your mind busy with productive, positive activities, then your so-called ‘worry monologue’ won’t overpower you,” she adds.
Of course, distraction techniques aren’t for everybody. “If you haven’t reached a place of acceptance with your anxiety and instead drown yourself in activities in an effort to ignore it, this strategy may not be for you,” notes Johnsen. “This is merely helpful for those who tend to get stuck in their heads and experience worrying spirals.”
Strategies For Dealing With Stress: Outdoor running & workout videos
Despite the fact that, up until recently, I hadn’t ran outside since middle school soccer, I laced up my running shoes and hit the pavement when my gym closed in mid-March. I’ve come to rely on exercise for anxiety relief, and I need that release now more than ever. I love it so much that I plan to continue outdoor runs post-pandemic.
Paraphrasing Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, “exercise releases endorphins, which can balance our moods and calm anxiety,” says Binensztok. “Outdoor exercise is particularly helpful because it gets us out of the house, which gives us a much-needed change of scenery and restores a sense of normalcy.” Plus, working out can wear out the body, which can “help your brain relax and improve sleep quality,” adds Johnsen. “If you can’t get quality sleep, you may experience more anxiety.”
Strategies For Dealing With Stress: Guided Meditation & Breathing Exercises
I began meditating a few years ago, but coronavirus has really deepened my practice, so to speak. I turn to my Headspace app in moments of panic, as well as to manage anxiety and stress on a daily basis. “When we experience anxiety, it triggers our autonomic nervous system and releases stress hormones," says Binensztok. "This is why we experience physical symptoms. Guided meditation and deep breathing help calm our autonomic nervous system, dropping cortisol back down to normal levels.” In other words, calming the body then calms the mind.
If you’re just getting into breath work, consider Johnsen’s strategy: “Take a deep breath in like you’re filling up a balloon. Then, let it out slowly, as if you’re pinching the neck of a balloon to the point where it squeaks. Count how long it takes you to release all of your breath. The longer the count, the better. The counting is super helpful because it occupies the mind. And repeat.”
Strategies For Dealing With Stress: Journaling
I’ve kept a journal since the first grade and always turn to it when my mind feels overwhelmed, which has been often in quarantine. “Journaling is a good way to process stress and emotions,” says Binensztok. “Writing things down allows us to express our emotions safely and to work through thoughts and memories in a way that’s similar to therapy.”
To get the most out of journaling, both Binensztok and Johnsen recommend free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness style writing. “Don’t censor yourself; if something feels difficult to write or brings up strong emotions, that’s likely a sign that you should write it out,” says Binensztok. Journaling can also help you gain a more logical perspective of your worries. “If you’re journaling in a moment of panic, it’s helpful to go back later and read that entry,” explains Johnsen. “Oftentimes, your rational mind can kick in later, and you can see how not true some of those worries are. It’s essentially a form of cognitive behavioral therapy: you become aware of your thoughts, observe what they’re doing to you, and you counter them with more rational cognition.”
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