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Here’s how to reduce your stress over the coronavirus pandemic

Professionals say maintaining routine, including exercise following social distancing recommendations, is important for good mental health during the coronavirus pandemic response.
Professionals say maintaining routine, including exercise following social distancing recommendations, is important for good mental health during the coronavirus pandemic response. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Maryland is stressed out by the coronavirus and the social distancing required to slow the outbreak’s spread, according to researchers. But local psychologists say maintaining daily goals and communication with loved ones can reduce pandemic-related anxiety.

Maryland so far has 580 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus. Four deaths have been reported, and 23 patients have been released from isolation. Public services are restricted statewide and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has closed nonessential businesses.

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Academics are studying the pandemic’s mental impact. A recent poll from the American Psychiatric Association found 48% of Americans are anxious about getting coronavirus. And a February study from King’s College London shows quarantines “can, on occasion, create dramatic effects.”

Five psychologists spoke with The Baltimore Sun to explain why the pandemic is stressing us out. They also provided guidance on how to protect your mental health during this time.

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Pandemics cause anxiety, depression

Calling pandemics “an experience out of the ordinary” akin to trauma, Laura Murray, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University Department of International Health, said psychologists are seeing a lot of anxiety and worry among residents. Everyone reacts differently to events, she said, but “there tends to be more fear” as the severity of the pandemic increases.

The impact of pandemics and reducing social contacts, according to psychologists, also includes difficulty concentrating or performing well at work or school, fear about infection or the future and irritability. Chetan Joshi, counseling center director for the University of Maryland, College Park, said some people are experiencing varying degrees of panic attacks, depression and even some post traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms.

Research also suggests pandemics and quarantines can disrupt sleep, cause changes in appetite, or turn people toward inappropriate coping habits, such as substance use, said Jason Parcover, director of Loyola University Maryland’s counseling center.

Nearly four in 10 Americans are anxious about becoming seriously ill or dying from the coronavirus, a national poll shows. And 62% of Americans are anxious about their loved ones getting sick.

Health care professionals are also stressed because their work puts themselves and their families at greater risk for infection. Quarantined health care workers worry about causing extra work for their colleagues, Parcover said. Research also suggests health care workers are negatively affected by stigmatizing attitudes from others who may avoid them for fear of infection, he added.

Joshi said health care providers’ significant focus on their work is likely keeping them distracted from their own anxiety to an extent. However, Joshi said health care workers face “an extra edge potentially to their anxiety and depression” due to the stress inherent to their work, and frustration, and anger as a result of factors such as the limited availability of personal protective equipment like facial masks.

Social distancing could foster loneliness

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise citizens to practice social distancing — stay at home or 6 feet away from others, avoid crowds and don’t touch one another.

Social distancing is intended to stop or slow down the spread of coronavirus, but “it’s almost shocking for people because it’s human nature to want to see and literally be able to reach out and touch people,” said clinical psychologist Anita M. Wells, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Morgan State University.

Wells said social distancing is hard for people right now because we’re used to having the “choice” of seeing people whenever possible, so there’s a “sense of loss, a great sadness” over the current situation.

Johannes Thrul, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, urged researchers to monitor loneliness moving forward because he expects those feelings to worsen with increased fear over infections and the economy.

Routines can reduce stress

The phrase “social distancing” itself potentially elicits feelings of loneliness and hopelessness, Parcover said, so it’s important to stay connected to people virtually.

“Just because you are having to stay at home doesn’t mean that you become completely disconnected,” Joshi said.

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Focusing on things in our control and letting go of things we can’t control will be “critical” in navigating this experience, Joshi said.

We can’t control how long this pandemic will last, for instance, but Joshi said we can try to control how we respond to it.

Murray urged people to connect with someone daily because someone might be “starting to seclude themselves a little bit more because they are worried or anxious.” People should schedule online dinners via video conferencing as well, Thrul said.

“You’re not alone,” Murray said. “Everyone is feeling some degree of worry and anxiety, but these are great things to do to manage.”

Creating and focusing on daily schedules helps to address stress, psychologists said. Start the day by writing goals and make an effort to think about three things to be grateful for in life.

Doing something new can also combat feelings of monotony, Wells said. She advises people to write down their reflections during this time to acknowledge and understand their feelings.

It’s also important to practice daily self-care, such as exercise, meditation or yoga, and even video games. Parcover and Thrul said we should prioritize getting a healthy amount of sleep and eating well.

Joshi said “speak up and be an advocate for yourself” if you’re feeling unwell. We should also “keep a sense of hope” and be compassionate with ourselves and others during these stressful times.

Limit your media intake and be selective about where you gather your information, as over-consuming news “exacerbates” stress. Murray said consume news three times a day for five to 10 minutes. Thrul said to try to keep your mind off the news cycle during the rest of the day.

Last, people can always seek a mental health professional for assistance during the pandemic. Many counselors offer appointments via telephone or video conferencing.

“Even though we’re physically distancing, we can still socially encourage and support each other. That’s vital during this time for our mental health and well-being,” Wells said.

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If you are in an acute mental health crisis, don’t hesitate to contact the 800-273-TALK (8255) lifeline or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor from the crisis text line.

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