mental health stress and resilience

The Coronavirus has landed in my beloved hometown of Washington, DC.  A handful of high schools have closed today, while others are limiting visits from international students. Hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies are out of stock online.  

As a mental health expert, my primary concern is less about the Coronavirus and more about the emotional wellbeing of our community — and the world. 

Risk Vs. Stress Levels

While the mortality rate for COVID-19 has been difficult to measure, experts put it between 1-3 percent. This is significantly lower than epidemics like SARS or MERS, whose rates were around 10 and 35 percent, respectively. It’s way below Ebola, which ranged from 25-90 percent. 

Even that 1-3 percent measurement may be inflated — experts point out that many cases haven’t been reported due to low severity or even a lack of symptoms. This doesn’t make Coronavirus any less scary for those who are coping with it, but it does mean that the vast majority of people will get through it just fine.

Yet despite its relatively low severity, the majority of people I have come in contact with over the past few weeks have shown signs of major stress over COVID-19. They’ve described stocking up on groceries and refusing to take public transportation. In many cases, this stress is affecting their day-to-day wellbeing.

What Makes Coronavirus Stress Worse

Sickness can cause anyone to feel anxious, but a number of factors can make anxiety worse.  These include:

  1. Constant Media Reporting. Many media outlets thrive on the sensational and increase anxiety by reporting on potential catastrophes.
  2. Herd Mentality. The neighbors are running out to stock up on toilet paper, rice, and Clorox wipes, and the fear of being left with nothing becomes all-consuming.
  3. Current Stressful Realities. Everyday stress can become exaggerated when surrounded by fear and panic. Situations that were mostly under control can become undone when a new stressor is introduced.
  4. Prior Trauma History. Past experiences where your safety was out of your control can easily be triggered by today’s current events with COVID-19.
  5. Pre-Existing Vulnerabilities. Whether physical or mental, preexisting vulnerabilities can make this new threat appear even more dangerous.
  6. Addiction. It could be chemical (drugs/alcohol), it could be behavioral (eating, gambling, work); regardless, when something like COVID-19 is introduced, those vulnerable to avoidance tactics may find their sobriety at risk or their addictive behavior on the rise.

What You Can Do About It

It does not have to be this way, and you have options to manage your stress. 

Here are some things you can do to get your mental health on track.

  1. Focus On What You Can Control. For example, follow the sanitation recommendations from trusted sources, like the CDC. If your attention is drawn frequently to things you can’t control, anxiety is soon to follow.
  2. Limit Media Consumption. It’s important to be aware of COVID-19, but too much exposure to sensational media reporting will heighten anxiety.
  3. Use Grounding Tools. Things like deep breathing, mindfulness, and meditation can help counteract any stress you are feeling.  Check out the “Stress” section of the Resilient Brain Project for free apps and information to guide you.
  4. Engage in Fun Activities. Spend time with friends, go to a comedy show, or enjoy a bike ride. If you love it, and you do it, any stress you are carrying will go down.
  5. Plan Self-Care. People define self-care differently.  Some people love a gentle yoga class, while others recharge with a walk in the woods or snuggling their doggies.  Whatever recharges you, make a little time for it daily. There are some non-negotiables that fall into this category: sleep, nutrition, exercise.  Boost those and you will better be able to handle any stress better (coronavirus or otherwise).
  6. Get Support. If the above tips aren’t enough, professionals can use their wisdom and experience to help you find a solution that fits your needs.

We are all in this together. Listen to what your body needs and the rest is sure to follow. As always, you are encouraged to reach out to us with any questions or concerns.