Coping with Stress, Uncertainty, and Anxiety During a Pandemic

With re-openings underway, how do we mentally cope with a normal that is in transition?

COVID-19 and recent societal stressors have created a deep uncertainty about our future. As a psychiatrist, I never hospitalized as many patients or seen this level of anxiety and depression in the community as I have seen these past few months.

So, when we hear that we can return to work or to school, dine at our favorite restaurants or go to the beach, the message is understandably as jarring to us now as the lockdown was back in March.

We know the doors haven’t flung open entirely. We know that a second wave of virus is looming, and that economic recovery will not be as fast as we want — or need — it to be. So how do we cope with a return to normal, when “normal” is still being redefined?

The first thing I tell my patients is to take care of their bodies. Sleep, exercise and proper nutrition are the foundations of good mental and physical health. There are a few other things we can do:

Stick to a Schedule

Human beings are creatures of habit. If you are still sheltering at home, make sure to keep a schedule. Wake up at the same time every day, get dressed in the morning, exercise, call people who bring you joy. If you are heading back into the world, remember that your former routine might still be disrupted. If the gym isn’t open — or appealing — try to get quality exercise outdoors or in your home. Getting into your office might take extra time, as many companies require temperature checks and other precautions before employees can enter their workplaces. Build some extra time into your schedule to allow for these changes.

Get Some Sunshine

If your anxiety is keeping you indoors, that’s OK. Take a nuanced, progressive approach to reintegrating into the world. Go outside for 30 minutes a day. Get some sunlight, which provides you with vitamin D that can help boost your immune system, and some calming fresh air. As long as you wear a mask, maintain your distance and practice good hygiene, you can begin to venture out safely and get back into the habit of engaging with the world.

Be Compassionate and Clear About Your Needs

Maybe you’re the type of person who wants to hug the nearest stranger and put these dark times behind you. Or maybe you have immunocompromised relatives and think society is opening up too soon. My hope is that we can be respectful of each other’s perspectives and experiences. If someone isn’t as thoughtful about social distancing measures as you are, it’s not up to you to chide them. Nor should you mock someone who isn’t yet comfortable shaking hands. Just as sunlight is good for the body, it’s good for relationships. Be frank and transparent about your needs and respectful of other people’s boundaries.

Anxiety and tension will likely remain high, even as the world re-opens. It will be important to treat each other with compassion — even from six feet away.

Do More, Watch Less

The anxiety monster demands feeding. You can starve it by turning off the news notifications on your phone, turning off the TV and staying away from social media. While it is important to stay informed, it is equally important to protect yourself from fixating on the problems of the world. Prolonged anxiety can lead to depression. But action is a powerful antidote.

Start with small problems that are within your reach. Volunteer. Check up on loved ones who you know are living alone or are at risk of social isolation and loneliness. It is well proven that acts of altruism are not only good for our community, they’re good for our health.

Resources, such as the ASPIRE program at Hoag, are available and have remained open and in-person to provide continued support to the community. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

This isn’t the first pandemic that humans have faced, and we know that we’ll get through this as a species. But we don’t want to be anxious the whole time. So, do what you can to keep anxiety at bay during these transition days.

We are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and if we are careful, compassionate and mindful, we can get there together.

Sina Safahieh, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the medical director of the ASPIRE program (After-School Program Interventions and Resiliency Education). Hoag’s Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute is offering the ASPIRE program as an evidence-based, intensive, outpatient program to treat teen anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.