By Monique Williams, LCSW

Sometimes stress can feel overwhelming, especially in uncharted territory, such as a pandemic.  It can be difficult to know what to do with, and how to normalize those feelings. Here are 5 practical and positive ways to manage stress and develop/practice healthy coping skills.

Defining Stress and the Signs of Stress

Merriam-Webster defines stress as a “strain” or “pressure.” In everyday life, people naturally experience such strain/pressure known as stress. For some, stress may be the idea of “having it all together” including home life, career life, relationships, etc. In this moment, many are experiencing collective stress and its effects both individually, and on the family.

Stress presents in a variety of ways – physically (headaches, stomach pain, muscle tension), mentally (negative thoughts, etc.), psychologically (anxiety, depression, etc.) and emotionally (anger, excessive worry, etc.). It is important to be able to recognize how stress manifests in you, as this can signal when to deploy your coping skills. Once you are aware of how stress presents for you, then you will be aware of the signs that your coping skills need to be put to use. Some signs of stress include:

  • Excessive worry
  • Exhaustion
  • Sadness
  • Avoidance (avoiding time and attention to think about how you feel)
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Restlessness
  • Struggling to focus

During a pandemic, however, stress can present in more unexpected ways due to worry, fear, and uncertainty that may accompany these circumstances.  

What is Coping? Adaptive vs Maladaptive 

Coping is defined by Merriam-Webster as dealing with and attempting to overcome problems and difficulties. We engage in coping every day when we take a deep breath in the face of a challenge, or make choices on how to manage a difficulty. There are healthy ways to cope (adaptive) and unhealthy ways to cope (maladaptive). The adaptive ways to cope tend to lead to an increased sense of positivity and decreased feelings of stress. 

Here are 5 Healthy Feel Good Ways to Manage & Cope with Stress during a Pandemic:

  1. Give yourself permission and space to feel your feelings; combinewith aromatherapy. This tip may seem like an intangible one, but this is a real and effective coping skill. Your physical space (environment) has a direct impact on how you feel emotionally, psychologically, etc. and that is why finding a physical space in your home (or safe place) to give permissionto yourself to sit, relax your body, and feel your feelings is important. For some who are at home as much as possible due to this pandemic, it can become quite stressful to feel confined.  Whether it is due to being in the same space everyday with the same people, and you might feel your options and choices have been removed from your control, these feelings need to be acknowledged. 

Once you find that space, think about how you are feeling, identify those feelings (out loud if you can) and then choose one way to manage/cope with your feelings. This coping skill will take practice, but is a buildable skill- you can add more ways to manage your feelings as you progress with these stress relief skills. 

Studies show a decrease in stress and anxiety because of aromatherapy. The aromatherapy part of this activity is an effort to promote relaxation while decreasing stress. In your safe space you can use candles, essential oils, diffusers, etc. to promote relaxation with scents such as lavender, rose, chamomile, or sandalwood.If nothing else, you will smell good and have taken a break from everyone and everything to focus on yourself, if only for 15 minutes; that can reduce your stress.

2. Engage in enjoyable physical activity. Physical activity is a longstanding method of stress relief, particularly walking and jogging (repetitive large muscle group movements) can offer great options for stress relief. While going to a gym for physical activity may not be your first choice in the midst of a Pandemic, there are many ways to engage in physical activity such as a walking outside while getting fresh air (with safety measures if you prefer), dance activities at home, video games with the family that offer physical activity/YouTube options, or even simply stretching while taking deep breaths can lead to increased energy, improved sleep quality and decreased stress. 

3. Connect with others.  It can be easy to feel isolated when living through a public health crisis while we are instructed to socially distance and stay home as much as possible. For this reason, connecting with others is necessary and can be very powerful. One of the reasons that support groups are successful is that there is power in being connected to others with shared experiences. We are all sharing the current experience so why not make the conscious decision to stay connected despite geography, especially those of you who live alone? Some options are to set up Zoom calls with family and friends, hold virtual game nights, engage in virtual dates (dinner, drinks, movie, etc.) and commune in an outdoor space that allows for distancing with a small group while being mindful of safety guidelines. In a nutshell, do not try to get through this alone because you don’t have to – stay connected! 

4. Find or reconnect with an activity. This can be an opportunity to find/reconnect with an activity that brings you joy and can feasibly be done where you feel comfortable and safe. Consider trying something that you have not done before because you did not have the time. Trying something new could very well be the thing that brings you joy or simply an experience that you can appreciate having tried. Reconnecting with a fun activity whether it be writing (blogging or journaling), artwork, crafts, gardening, etc., can also decrease stress. For family activities, consider creating an indoor or outdoor obstacle course, scavenger hunts, family board games, home improvement projects, or movie nights. Any of these options are potentially positive experiences that can increase your relaxation and decrease your stress.   

5. Maintain Hope. While this may sound simple, it is a useful strategy to counteract stress. Reflect on times that you experienced a challenging situation in the past and focus on the fact that you persevered. Being able to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel can help you have something positive on which you can focus. Focus on maintaining hope because one thing is certain, at some point this pandemic will end and life will move forward.

Managing stress can seem daunting, but with practical tools at your disposal you can manage your stress and feel better. If you find that your stress is persistent regardless of your efforts, consider professional help; your mental health is important. We all experience stress on a daily basis, but this pandemic is a source of stress that is a moment in time. This moment will pass-hopefully,  with you as a less stressed version of yourself.