Dr. Douglas Offers Tips for Managing Stress and Anxiety During Covid-19
Here are several recommendations for managing stress related to the pandemic from the Anxiety Treatment Center of Austin’s Dr. Ryan Douglas.
General Stress Management Recommendations for Coping with the Covid-19 Pandemic
Reduce Covid Stress by Reducing Covid Change
For instance, continue waking up and going to bed at the similar times each day, continue to get dressed each morning, and/or continue to prepare meals on the same schedule you had been following prior to the pandemic. Additionally, consider creating a structured routine for yourself to help manage your time. This could be a calendar or to-do list that helps you organize your day. This routine can help ensure that you are experiencing a variety of activities throughout the day instead of engaging in the same two or three activities repeatedly.
Try to include several types of activities in your routine including:
- exercise/physical activity;
- getting outside for a little while each day;
- reading or other leisure activities;
- self-care activities such as mindfulness, yoga, religious activities, and relaxation exercises;
- socialization either virtual or in person if you are quarantined with others;
- and other activities that are important to you.
If you are interested in exploring some new activities that you can do at home, this may be a good time to dabble in art, cooking/baking, organizational projects, gardening, improving computer or programming skills, or a range of other activities. However, do not pressure yourself to master new skills or be perfectly efficient at this time. The goal of having this variety in your daily routine is to improve mood and manage stress, not to increase your stress by setting unrealistic expectations for how you spend your time. Therefore, do create a routine that helps add variety to your daily activities and keeps you on some kind of predictable schedule, but do not make the schedule so daunting that you feel overwhelmed or stressed about completing the activities that you included in your plan.
Tune Out a Little to Keep Covid Stress Down
Manage your media consumption. Repetitively checking the news and/or social media throughout the day may exacerbate stress and worry and does not improve your ability to protect yourself or others. Create a schedule for how often you will allow yourself to check news, healthcare information websites, and/or social media sites on which you are likely to see Covid-19 related posts.
Most of us will need to stay informed as the situation changes, so checking these sites somewhat regularly may be important. However, too much checking does not improve your ability to act, and may lead to increases in anxiety or depressed mood. Decide if once each day, once every other day, or even a couple of times a week would be a reasonable pace for you to check Covid-19 related information and then do your best to stick to the plan. Schedule a Covid-19 information checking session for a set amount of time like 15 minutes and stick to that plan. You will likely be just as informed as you would have been checking multiple times each day, but hopefully less overwhelmed by the never-ending stream of posts and stories about the pandemic.
Maybe Some New Habits Can Help You Manage Covid Stress
Consider beginning a new quarantine ritual to add to your daily routine. Activities could include:
- writing or recording a journal about what you are doing and how you are coping each day,
- a daily check in with family or friends, daily walks or games with housemates,
- video chat parties with friends or family on a set day each week, or
- other rituals that may be new to you such as a brief mindfulness practice or getting in the habit opening the curtains or blinds each morning to let in the sunlight.
Rituals such as these can be a source of meaning and comfort.
Look for Stressful Patterns in Your Self-Talk
Identify and challenge problematic thinking patterns like holding yourself to unrealistic standards, making dire predictions about the future without having all the pertinent information, and thinking about things in all or nothing terms. Softening how you talk to yourself and how you think about the future may result in less intense emotional responses to your thoughts.
Anxiety Disorder Specific Recommendations
Know Your Stress Weaknesses
Identify your triggers or vulnerabilities related to Covid-19. Are you checking the news too frequently? Are you washing and wiping down more than necessary? Are you asking for reassurance from others or the internet on a frequent basis? Is your worry about the future getting in the way of completing day-to-day tasks? You may or may not need to make changes to address these areas.
We will make several recommendations, but know that not everyone needs to use the same strategies to manage their anxiety. Begin by identifying some of your specific vulnerabilities. This could be repetitive cleaning or checking behaviors, excessive worry, avoidance of activities that might enhance your life like walking outside, staying in a “safe” part of your house or neighborhood, or excessive information gathering. Once you know what some of your triggers are then you can better determine approaches to modifying your behaviors or thinking patterns.
Be Aware of Precautionary Extremes
If you are struggling with fears of contamination or illness it is important to notice the difference between cleaning and safety procedures that are recommended by health officials like the CDC, and those that are recommended by your OCD or anxiety. We recommend that you do follow the recommendations given by the CDC including social distancing, frequent hand washing, and wearing a mask if you have to go to a public place like the grocery store.
However, if you struggle with knowing how much caution is enough then we recommend that you do not go above and beyond by practicing extra hand washes, wipe downs, or other precautions that have not been explicitly recommended by the CDC.
For instance, wear a mask when in a public place like the grocery store, but not while walking the dog alone. Wash your hands, but not for more than 20 seconds. Another example that may be a struggle for some individuals is leaving the house to go for a walk or check the mail. While it is important at this time that we do not engage in unnecessary outings or social gatherings, it is still recommended that we stay active and go outside. In general, it is a good idea to follow the CDC guidelines, but notice if you are taking a covid-stress-inducing “more caution is better” approach that is increasing your time spent worrying about or trying to avoid Covid-19.
Reroute Your Covid Stress in Productive Ways
Recognize when you are engaging with unproductive worries. Some amount of focus on the pandemic is needed in order to stay informed about changes to the CDC recommendations or state and local policy changes that impact you. However, hours of worrying about the possible impact on you, your family, or your career will not help you avoid potential negative outcomes.
When you notice that you are struggling with unproductive worry or obsession, you can often redirect your attention to other activities. Begin making a list of other activities or topics that may capture your attention in order to help you direct attention away from Covid-19 worries. If you can identify activities that are connected to your deeper values then it is more likely that you will feel engaged in these activities.
For instance, if you enjoy music then practicing an instrument or learning about a favorite musician may be a good way to spend time that would have otherwise been spent thinking about Covid-19. Try to identify several options for activities to focus on instead of Covid-19 such as:
- physical activities,
- talking with loved ones,
- playing games, or
- working on some other work or leisure project.
It may not always completely redirect you from unproductive worry, but even some less attention spent focused on unproductive worry may be helpful in reducing your overall level of anxiety.
You Already Know How to Handle Uncertainty
Anxiety and OCD thrive when there is great uncertainty. Due to the high level of uncertainty about the illness, the length of time we will be social distancing, and the potential impacts on a range of other areas of society and life, it is natural to feel anxious about the current situation.
However, remember that we all confront uncertainty in many ways on a daily basis! This is not the first time you have dealt with uncertainty. You probably have a great deal of experience managing uncertainty related to driving, social situations, work performance, health, financial investments, parenting decisions, and many more areas of life. You are better at handling uncertainty than you might be telling yourself!
So, try not to let this specific version of uncertainty convince you that you are incapable of tolerating uncertainty. It is uncomfortable and scary, but you can practice leaning in or tolerating uncertainty to help manage anxiety through this pandemic.
Manage Your Covid Stress Communication
Much like the previous suggestion to manage your media consumption it is also important to manage how much reassurance you are seeking from important others in your life. If you tend to ask for excessive reassurance then it may be useful to set a schedule for this instead of asking for reassurance whenever you feel anxious.
You could try to set a weekly schedule (5-10 minutes per week) to ask questions like “are we doing enough cleaning?” or “were you careful at the grocery store?” instead of asking these questions every time they feel pressing to you. This may feel scary at first, but in the long run will help to better manage your uncertainty and anxiety.
We hope you find these Covid-19 stress tips useful! We’d love to hear your feedback. If you’d like to reach out to a therapist, please feel free to contact us for an online therapy appointment or free consultation.