By Danita Johnson Hughes, PhD
President & CEO, Edgewater Health
We are all now painfully aware that the coronavirus (COVID-19) is not a hoax.
With executive orders to shelter in place, all but essential businesses closing, streets and parking lots virtually empty, government buildings and downtowns nearly deserted, restaurants and bars closed, store shelves empty, the Olympics, Indianapolis 500 and even church services postponed or cancelled, and television news and social media dominated by COVID-19, it’s understandable stress levels are up and people are scared.
Adding to this is the fact that we are inundated daily, even hourly, with directives and guidelines about how to keep ourselves and our families healthy and virus-free. Among these guidelines, social distancing has become the most pervasive strategy for protecting ourselves and those we love.
Whether choosing to voluntarily isolate or adhering to a stay-at-home order mandated by the government, the COVID-19 outbreak is causing more fear and social isolation than ever before. People are losing their jobs by the thousands while many others fear that they will eventually be furloughed.
The economic uncertainty of not being able to pay your bills or how to feed your family can take a toll on your mental and physical health if not managed properly.
A study reported by the American Psychological Association and coauthored by Louise Hawkley, PhD, points to evidence linking perceived social isolation with adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life.
Recognizing that social isolation places individuals at much greater risk for a variety of diseases as well as premature mortality, here are a few tips that may help you to manage your stress during this time of uncertainty:
- Reach out to family and friends. You can do this safely using a variety of electronic means; telephone, Facetime, Snapchat, etc. Remember that during these challenging times, there are those who may need a word of encouragement. Well-being checks on others can be mutually beneficial. Not only will you lift the spirits of the person you are connecting with, but you will feel better as well.
- Tidy your living space. With the constant reminders of washing your hands several times throughout the day, and sanitizing virtually everything you touch, the mental obsession caused by disorder and lack of cleanliness can be a source of anxiety. Take time to organize your surroundings. Keeping things neat will help you feel better.
- Normalize your new reality. Get up, get dressed and get busy. Take advantage of this time by completing long overdue tasks, like cleaning your closet or taking on tasks that you’ve been putting off, like painting the bathroom. It will give you a sense of accomplishment at a time when most things appear to be out of your control.
- Reframe your thoughts. Instead of considering yourself to be on “lockdown,” think of it as an opportunity to reconnect with yourself and the things you enjoy. Read a book, try a new recipe, play board games, watch a movie.
- Breathe. Scientists believe that conscious breathing activates the body’s relaxation response. This in turn lowers blood pressure. Keeping your blood pressure in the normal range reduces the risk of stroke and improves cardiovascular health. It’s also good for digestion and general immunity, both of which are impaired by stress.
- Limit the amount of time you spend listening to the news. The constant barrage of media reports and updates on the coronavirus can be anxiety provoking. While you need to be aware of the latest news about the coronavirus you don’t want to allow it to consume you to a point of obsession.
- Finally, call your health care provider if your stress gets in the way of your daily functioning. Community mental health centers are now offering a number of therapies to limit face to face interactions and provide safer alternatives for persons needing to see a health care professional while not leaving their homes. Telehealth allows long-distance patient and clinician contact, including care, advice, education, intervention, monitoring, and even remote admissions.
No one can accurately predict how long this devastating pandemic will ultimately last. No one knows when the spread of infection and number of fatalities will level off and wane. No one can honestly say when the state of emergency and shelter in place order will be lifted.
And, nobody, least of all me, can tell you exactly when we’ll return to business as usual. But rest assured that taking care of yourself, your friends, and your family can help you cope with stress and lessen your anxiety. Helping others cope with their stress can also make your community stronger. In the end, we will all be better for it.