Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

COVID-19 stressing you out?

4/6/2020 by Olivia Bogucki, PhD, and Craig Sawchuk, PhD, LP


Since the World Health Organization named the COVID-19 virus a global pandemic, stress levels are increasing all around us. Some of the main contributors include:

  • Uncertainty
  • Information overload
  • Disruptions in daily routines

Stress is a normal, healthy human response. It's also motivating. That means it helps us: 

  • Be more aware of our surroundings
  • Get ready to take action
  • Plan and prepare for the future

Some common ways our body and mind show stress include: 

  • Emotionally. Anxiety, fear, irritability, sadness
  • Physically. Sleep problems, tension, fatigue
  • Thinking. Worry, rumination, racing thoughts
  • Behaving. Avoidance, social withdrawal, excessive checking, seeking reassurance

Always keep in mind that what goes up does come down. Stressful times do come and go. When things are feeling more uncertain, try to focus on those things you can control. Here are active steps you can take to manage stress brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Maintain healthy habits

An important first step is keeping a daily schedule. Setting up healthy habits and routines can help boost your mood and energy levels:

  • Make sleep a priority. Get up and go to bed at routine times each day. Make sure that you're getting adequate, restful sleep. Sleeping too little or too much tends to cause problems. 
  • Be physical. Plan 30 minutes of physical activity, walking or exercise each day. Mix and match your exercises for variety. Try to get outside every day for fresh air. 
  • Eat well. Nourish your body with foods that support your health: fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains, fish, lean meats, beans and legumes. These foods give longer-lasting energy. Keep yourself hydrated by drinking plenty of water. 
  • Care for yourself. Start each day be showering and getting dressed. This will help wake up your brain. Stay engaged with personally meaningful activities. Be productive and keep up with daily chores. Set reminders if you need to take any medications.

Making a plan can be helpful for structuring your daily schedule. Focus on a few tasks that are most important to you rather than changing your whole routine. Calendars and reminders can help you set up and stick to a daily schedule.  

Stay connected and disconnected

Stay connected with family members, friends and other social supports who reliably build you up. During times when social distancing is recommended, rely on virtual options, such as phone, text and video messaging. Keeping up with our social network is essential to our well-being

Set limits on social media and the news. Choose a trusted news source. Staying informed is helpful, but at some point, it can be too much of a good thing. It's important to disconnect from information overload during the day. Try scheduling 15-30 minutes twice a day to stay up to date on the latest events. Know that it's okay to disconnect if you feel your stress level rising. 

Relax, relax, relax

Consider all the ways you can relax and manage stress, such as breathing deeply, practicing mindfulness or meditation, listening to music, reading a book or watching something that makes you laugh. Make a list of your options and put it where you can see it. Building in small amounts of relaxation throughout the day can help bring your stress level down.

Worries force you to focus inward on distressing thoughts. Mindfulness helps you learn how to change your focus to the environment around you: 

  • When you're mindful, you don't fight with your thoughts. 
  • You learn how to direct your attention, awareness and thoughts back to the present moment. 
  • Mindfulness is about focus. You focus only on what is happening right now with intention and purpose, without judgment. 
  • When you're being mindful, you're present in the moment and accept the moment as it is. 

Keep your thinking in check

Worry is common during times of stress. Worry can change our thinking in three ways:

  • Catastrophizing (thinking the worst)
  • Overestimating the likelihood of bad things happening
  • Underestimating our ability to cope

The more anxious we get, the less flexible our thinking becomes. Keep in mind: 

  • The most catastrophic outcomes tend to be the least likely to happen. 
  • The least catastrophic outcomes tend to be the most likely to happen. 

If you find yourself caught up in cycles of worry, practice this exercise for more flexible thinking. Start by writing down five worries. Next, directly challenge these thoughts by writing answers to these questions: 

  • What is another, less bad way to look at this situation?
  • What is the actual likelihood that these worries will happen?
  • What objective evidence do I have for these worries?
  • What objective evidence do I have against these worries?
  • How have I coped with situations like this in the past? 

It's important to write out these thoughts; it helps you train your brain to be more flexible. 

Mind your manners

Be patient. Be kind. Be helpful. As stress goes up, our tolerance can go down. Do what you can to be a positive influence on others. Work together as a team. Think about ways you can help those who may be in need — give to the food pantry or participate in donating blood. 

Take reasonable precautions

Keep up to date with your local health authorities or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about appropriate steps for handwashing, disinfecting surfaces and using face masks. Avoid going above and beyond recommended precautions. Take stock of what you have at home and keep a shopping list of what you actually need. Don't go overboard with purchasing too many things you feel you might need at some point in the future. 

Final thoughts

Time and experience will help move things from being uncertain to being more certain. Know your limits. Keep track of your overall stress level and those things that are helpful for relieving it. If you find you're having difficulties coping, reach out to your health care team for resources and to discuss additional treatment options.

Dr. Olivia Bogucki is a clinical health psychology fellow in Primary Care in Rochester/Kasson. 

Dr. Craig Sawchuk is a clinical psychologist in Primary Care in Rochester/Kasson and co-chairs the Division of Integrated Behavioral Health.