March 30, 2020

Creating a new normal during uncertain times

If the news about the COVID-19 situation has you feeling stressed out, you are not alone. But there are steps you can take to lower your stress, reduce anxiety and help you stay healthy in these uncertain times.

"We have to cultivate resilience," said Dr. Shilagh Mirgain, a psychologist at UW Health.

"We survived as a species because our brains are primed to focus on potential threats, ruminate on them and prepare to deal with them. This is helpful in the short-term, but in a case like the coronavirus where there are more unknowns than answers, it leaves us vulnerable in a heightened state of anxiety, fear and stress. But we can adapt and create a new normal and be the calm in the storm."

Tips for creating a sense of calm during times of anxiety

Calm your body and mind

When you notice that you are getting on edge and overwhelmed, try deep breathing. Focus your attention on a longer timescale - think about the future, when a vaccine is found and this has died down, how you want to have used this time. This kind of broadening perspective taking can really help relieve emotions. Remember that every storm has ended and across all of time, we as a species are resilient and have overcome many hardships.

Prepare, don't panic

Focus on the things you can control, like washing your hands, social distancing and keeping your loved ones safe. Be motivated to implement changes, handwashing for 20 seconds as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control - or as one public health expert says, as if you've just chopped up some jalapenos and now have to put your contacts in.

Social distancing is key to stopping the spread of the virus. Buy food and supplies as normal, but don't overbuy remembering that others need things, too - just get enough for you and your family to get through the next few weeks.

Prioritize self-care

There are a lot of things you can do to help keep your immune system healthy:

  • Exercise

  • Eat fresh fruits and vegetables

  • Get outside and spend time in nature

  • Get enough sleep

  • Spend time with your family and pets

  • Practice gratitude of the good in your life

If your routine is disrupted, set up a schedule when you sleep, eat, exercise, relax, etc.

Consume a healthy dose of media

Watch the news and check reputable news outlet websites, but just check them once a day. Being connected 24/7 is hard on our health. Research shows that non-stop media checking can lead to psychological and physical distress. Try to minimize your time on social media - just get the facts you need to stay informed and safe.

Develop goals

There is a silver lining to be found in the limits of social distancing, telecommuting and being home bound - find it and focus on it. This is an opportunity to step outside your usual routine. Work on a goal you previously didn't have time for: Learn a hobby, get in shape, clean your closets, learn how to use the library's books and audiobooks, play board games with your family, write those thank you notes you always wanted to send.

Practice mindfulness

Unfortunately, a lot of the energy around this situation pulls us off-center, with our mind racing and planning for various scenarios. Mindfulness can act like a rudder to steady the mind. Taking a few deep, mindful breaths can help quiet the noise and bring back a sense of perspective. Focus on something outside yourself to ground you: the look of a spring flower blooming, the sound of your child's laughter, the aroma of your first cup of coffee. Then offer some compassion, kindness or encouragement to yourself. I've been using the affirmation, "I am safe. I am strong. I can spread love. I am navigating this unprecedented time with clarity, courage, wisdom and resilience."

Reach out to others

Expand your perspective to sensing others in your community and around the world having similar experiences - we are a global community having a common experience. Share kindness, care, compassion and love with one another whether it is a neighbor, family member, friend or stranger. In difficult times like these, using your support network - while still practicing social distancing - can be very helpful.

Just make sure to reach out to people who are supportive and not those who will increase your stress. And be sure to talk about things other than COVID-19. If you find that anxiety is interfering with your daily functioning or causing increased distress, reach out to a mental health professional and call your doctor.