If you’re feeling anxious and stressed about the Coronavirus, you’re not alone. It’s over one hundred years since the world has seen a global outbreak on this scale. As the disease spreads, it’s a natural response to be worried about the impact of COVID-19. Developing strategies to build resilience and reduce coronavirus stress during the outbreak can help.
Most of us have never had do deal with uncertainty on this scale before. When you’re a doctor, nurse or allied health professional working on the front line, stress can be a regular occurrence that depletes your energy. The novel nature of COVID19 means that we’re working with unknowns and that can increase anxiety. We may not be able to control what happens within the coming weeks and months, but what we can control is how we respond to it.
Avoiding a Coronavirus Stress Amygdala Hijack
Stress, Anxiety or Overwhelm? Let’s take a look at the difference between Coronavirus stress, anxiety and overwhelm.
Stress is an evolutionary response in your body to a particular trigger or threat. We all respond to stress in different ways. Learning to recognise your own stress signs and symptoms (and those of colleagues) can become a useful early warning system. Once you recognise it you can begin to employ stress management strategies to dial down your stress.
Generally, anxiety is the body’s response to stress. It can result in persistent worry, fear or panic about what might happen in the future. Stressful situations like the outbreak of Coronavirus may trigger anxiety. It can disrupt your daily life, skew your perception of events and reduce your ability to respond effectively. Most of us will experience anxiety at some point when faced with stressful events.
The ability to recognise and then manage our emotions helps us to avoid what Daniel Goleman refers to as an ‘Amygdala Hijack’. That’s when our fight, flight or freeze response is activated. Our emotions take over and we become overwhelmed, responding immediately and ineffectively to a situation without thinking clearly and rationally. Calming your brain during stressful situations is a skill that you can learn. Here’s how.
Identify Coronavirus Stress
It sounds counterintuitive but sometimes stress and anxiety can creep up on you. It can be hard to recognise that you’re stressed and anxious before you start to feel overwhelmed. We all react differently to stress , but some common signs that you or someone else is feeling anxious about the current outbreak could be
- Frequent worry
- Moments of fear and feeling helpless
- A change in sleep patterns
- Withdrawal from activities that you normally enjoy
- Feeling of frustration, resentment or anger
- Sadness and or tearfulness
Recognising coronavirus stress is information that you can use to regain control and begin dialling down your stress levels whilst still taking necessary precautions . Allow yourself to recognise these feelings without beating yourself up for your response. It’s ok to feel what you’re feeling. Stress is information, it becomes unhelpful when it turns into panic.
Arm Yourself With Coronavirus Facts
The more you know about Coronavirus, the more proactive you can be in terms of prevention. Seek out accurate information from credible sources. This will help you to avoid the fear and panic that misinformation produces. Alia Crum, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University explored the role of mindsets and how they impact our stress response her research suggests that the way we perceive stress may be critical in terms of how we respond to it. Crum found that viewing stress as part of life, as a skill to be mastered, resulted in better health, emotional well-being and productivity at work – even during highly stressful periods. Viewing stressful events this way helps us to manage threats more effectively. Knowing the facts puts you back in control and enables you to take proactive steps to protect yourself. Useful sources of coronavirus information are:
- WHO Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) technical guidance: Patient management
- WHO Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public
- Kai Kupferschmidt, science journalist
- Nextstrain Genomic epidemiology of novel coronavirus (hCOV-19)
- European Respiratory Society. Novel Coronavirus Outbreak Information & Resources
Create News & Social Media Limits
Whilst informing yourself is a positive, being constantly connected to Coronavirus news feeds and social media can amplify feelings of anxiety and result in overwhelm. Remain informed but consider limiting the amount of time that you spend reading about Coronavirus. Manage tech time in the same way that you already mitigate against digital overload by switching off alerts, setting a time limit on your use of apps and removing your phone or device from your bedroom. Create news breaks and consider taking a day off from checking coronavirus news. Instead, spend that time on something that renews and energises you instead, for example, reading, listening to music, going for a walk, exercise or spending time in nature.
Focus on What you can Control
Energy spent on what we cannot control is wasted. Ruminating on what you cannot do will feed into stress and anxiety. Focusing on what you can control enables you to take more effective action.
- Identify what you can control e.g. saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to requests from others, what you can influence e.g. working practices and what you can’t.
- What can you do to prepare or plan for the areas that you can control? This might include preparing supplies in case you are quarantined, or talking to your family and friends about how you will manage a quarantine in practical terms.
- Preparation can also include building your resilience (with our free toolkit) making sure that you prioritise your own self care or creating space in your day for stress reduction strategies such as mindfulness (another free toolkit) or exercise. Even small, incremental interventions of 5 minutes will begin to add up.
- Create an action plan with a timeline.
Coronavirus Stress & Sleep
Coronavirus stress may well keep you awake. It sounds obvious, but making sure that you get adequate sleep will help you to manage stress. Churning over the day or tossing and turning will exacerbate overwhelming thoughts and feelings. Take a look at your sleep hygiene and develop a bedtime routine.
If you can, go to sleep at the same time every night. If that’s not possible and you’re working night shifts, develop a regular pre-sleep routine that soothes your mind and body. That might include a hot bath, herbal sleep tea or relaxation app, along with anything else that relaxes you. Keep your bedroom gadget free, promoting a wind down space before you go to sleep.
Consider practising mindfulness. As well as helping to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, a randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for chronic insomnia discovered that building mindfulness into your day can reduce chronic insomnia in adults.
Connect With Others
Stay connected with family, friends and support networks. The psychological impact of working in the centre of an outbreak or being isolated in quarantine are well documented. It’s easy to withdraw from others and shut down when you feel stressed. Talk to others about how you are feeling. Remember that sometimes it can also be helpful to deliberately talk about non Coronavirus topics, limiting the time you spend on topics that are likely to deplete you. Now is the time to consciously limit the time you spend with mood hoovers who drain your energy by being negative.
It’s possible to remain connected digitally if you find yourself quarantined. Speak to friends and family using video calling apps or phone calls to manage feelings of isolation.
Build Resilience Architecture
Think about the way that your day is structured. It may be that circumstances mean that your routine needs to change, at least for a while. Think about how you can design your day around self care and resilience. What new routines can you introduce that will renew and replenish you? For example, if you commute to work, getting off a stop early and incorporating a walk into the journey. Is it possible to limit the things in your day that drain you? This might mean saying ‘No’ to requests from others and putting yourself first. Are there opportunities within any changes you might experience that you can use to your advantage?
Exercise Self Compassion
Research has demonstrated that self compassion has consistently found to be key to wellbeing and resilience. It has also been linked to decreased amygdala responses – reducing the likelihood of an amygdala hijack. Instead of berating yourself when you experience stress and anxiety you can generate positive emotions and accept that sometimes things are difficult without apportioning blame.
Self Compassion Hacks
These compassion practices can be used to build kindness and self compassion into your routine.
- When things get tough, take a self compassion break, even if it’s just 60 seconds.
- Keep a journal focusing on the areas that you’re struggling with. Reflect on your journal entry with compassion. Imagine that you are responding kindly to a friend with your reflections.
- Reframe your perception of failing as an opportunity to learn, grow and improve.
- Monitor your self talk. When you hear your inner critic, talk back to it with kindness. Use phrases like “It’s ok to be angry about the situation.” “I don’t need to be perfect.” And when things don’t go as you wanted “Failing is part of being human.”
- Limit the time that you spend on social media. Use that time for self care instead.
- Prioritise your wellness and speak to someone when feelings of overwhelm persist.
This article was originally published in The Resilient Doctor www.theresilientdoctor.com