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Feeling stressed? Tips to reduce anxiety and reclaim a sense of control during COVID-19

If you’re feeling anxious about the current COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. In fact, a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association published in U.S. News found that nearly half of all respondents were anxious about the possibility of getting the coronavirus and another 62% were anxious about family or loved ones contracting the disease.

Source: American Psychiatric Association

What makes dealing with it especially difficult is that many of our calming go-to’s just aren’t possible right now.

We can’t go out to dinner with friends to talk about what’s going on; restaurants are closed.

We can’t sweat out the stress in the gym or breathe it out in our yoga studios; they’re closed, too.

We can’t lose ourselves in the movies or at a baseball game because theaters are closed and sports are put on hold.

But enough about what we can’t do. There are plenty of ways to ease anxiety and maintain a sense of control. And they won’t cost you a dime!

Breathe

That’s the mainstay behind yoga, about which Richardson yoga instructor Chrissy Cortez-Mathis sings praises. And no wonder: “What I love most about yoga,” she says, “is that when we connect movement to breathing deeply, it’s hard to think about anything else.”

“Breathing helps us focus; it oxygenates our body and releases endorphins, which are the feel-good hormones. The biggest bonus is after we are done, our minds are calmer. When our minds are calm, we make better decisions and we begin to respond rather than react to stress.”

You may be saying, “Everyone knows how to breathe,” but shallow, rapid breathing isn’t what we’re talking about. Actually, it can make you feel even worse. Instead, Cortez-Mathis says, take a nice, slow breath (maybe as you count to four) through your nose, then release it (also to the count of four) through your mouth. Take a few breaths that way, then begin exhaling through the nose instead of the mouth.

“You might open your hands on the inhale and gently close them as you exhale,” says Cortez-Mathis, who set up her Yoga With Chrissy YouTube channel to make sure her yoga students and everyone else has the chance to keep up or to begin a practice.

“Repeat three to five times. If you want more movement, raise your arms like a T on the inhale; on the exhale, lower them. Then check in on yourself. Hopefully, you’re feeling calmer.”

Stay Connected

“Keep in touch with friends,” says Sandy Potter, a licensed clinical social worker and vice president and chief operations officer of behavioral health at Texas Health Resources. “Social connection is what we need.”

Which may sound ironic, because we’re supposed to steer clear of each other. But we can still pick up the phone and call or text someone. We can connect via social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. We can even hand-write a letter; putting pen to paper has been shown to have similar effects on the brain as meditation, according to forbes.com.

If those interactions get heated, thus negating the positives inherent in being connected, step back a minute, Potter says. “Sometimes people act that way when they’re just scared, and a lack of information increases our anxiety and our fear.” Which leads to the next tip:

Take a Break

“There’s a lot of good information and there’s a lot of bad information,” Potter says. “It’s well-known that the more we watch news about stressful and traumatic events in our environment, the more stressed we will be.”

How much is too much? Listen to your body, she says. If you’re feeling more stressed, step away from the screen. It’s not going anywhere.

Maybe set a timer every 30 minutes or hour to remind yourself to break away.

Go Outside

The gyms may not be open, but long before there were gyms, there was the great outdoors. Walk or jog around the block. Ride your bike. Life may be uncertain, but spring with all its beauty and growth isn’t. It’s still a beautiful world out there. And as if you didn’t know how much better you feel outdoors, studies on ecotherapy, as it’s called, back that up. Time spent in nature, they show, leads to decreased rates of depression, anxiety and stress.

If you can’t make it to the woods or onto a trail, you can still incorporate movement into your day. Do 20 jumping jacks as soon as you get out of bed. Do countertop push-ups while your coffee reheats. Play living-room leapfrog with your kids. Put on a dance or exercise video and have at it.

Eating Well reports that the benefits of exercising correlate to benefits of taking common antianxiety medications. You don’t have to run a marathon to get the most out of movement. Even 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there count toward helping lower depression, cholesterol and weight; to strengthening muscles and bones; to boosting confidence; to regulating sleep. It can also reduce your risk of developing heart disease or diabetes and some cancer.

Plus, and maybe above all else, it just makes you feel good — like you can take on just about anything the world is throwing our way these days.

Eat Well

If you’re hunkered down, you probably have a pantry full of staples. This is an especially good time to try out a new recipe (or two or three). Here are some that can be made with the basics you probably have stashed in your pantry; they’re recommended by Robin Plotkin, a Dallas registered dietitian. In addition, you can follow our Texas Health-y Home Cooking series where we feature a new local chef or dietitian every week along with an easy and quick recipe you can make from pantry staples.

It’s also a good time to make sure you’re getting plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. Eating healthy foods not only makes you healthier physically; doing so also keeps you sharp and feeling better mentally.

Keep a Journal

As mentioned earlier, the physical act of writing is good for the brain and, thus, the mood. And with so much happening these days, keeping a journal will help keep you on an even keel. Plus, when this is all over (which it will be), you can go back and remind yourself of your resilience.

Create Something with Your Hands

Pull out a pad of paper and some crayons or paints or colored pencils, and have at it.

“Anyone can draw,” says Kathryn MacDonell, geriatric program manager and NICHE Coordinator – Dementia Support on the staff at Texas Health Dallas. “The secret is to be thoughtful, to focus, and not to rush. Draw yourself, your cat, your fridge, your family.”

The goal isn’t perfection, she says. It’s creating, “which helps us refocus and accept our efforts and ourselves.”

Now more than ever, as our social connections have diminished or completely disappeared, we need to rely on art, she says.

“Art lowers anxiety and depression. Creativity is wildly important in staying positive and remaining connected to self and community.”

Plus, and perhaps most of all, “art can help us to imagine a more hopeful future,” she says.

Another way to use your hands to create beauty is by knitting or crocheting. Added bonus: doing so helps lower blood pressure reduce and stress.

One final, and very important, reminder: If you’re still struggling with anxiety and feeling out of control, tell someone. Many physicians and therapists offices are offering up virtual visits right now, and most of the time they are covered by your insurance. A shelter-in-place order doesn’t mean you have to put your well-being and mental health on the backburner.

If you or someone you care about is feeling overwhelmed with anxiety or other emotions, good resources are available, including:

  • Texas Health Behavioral Health, 682-236-6023
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990
  • Many companies offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that offer short-term free counseling and coping services, among other benefits. Refer to the head of your company’s HR for more information on how to access these resources.

Look to the Texas Health Coronavirus Response and the CDC for updates and information about the coronavirus.

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