A new year often brings with it new beginnings and new opportunities, but 2020 has started on a distressing note. With devastating bushfires raging across Australia and with the Australian Government declaring a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is understandable that so many people are currently experiencing stress, anxiety, fear and panic during this uncertain time.
Stress is often described ‘as feeling overloaded, wound-up, tense and worried’, as well as a feeling that we’re not able to cope.1
Most of us experience some form of stress during our day, whether it’s a deadline at work that needs to be met, children fighting in the back seat of the car, or receiving a distressing phone call that a loved one has fallen ill… Yet when the stress we’re experiencing is due to a a virus that is highly infectious and without a vaccine, it is reasonable to feel worried and overwhelmed, and to reflect on what the current circumstances mean for you and your family…
During any crisis or difficult time however, it is important that we learn how to manage our stress effectively before it becomes chronic and debilitating, and affects our overall health and wellbeing.
Managing stress during this uncertain time is possible
There are many different ways to manage stress, but as each person experiences and deals with stress differently, it’s important to find strategies that will work for you.
Have you thought about how you currently deal with stress? Do you eat or drink too much for example? Do you smoke? Do you take it out on your family?
Or do you possibly take a few deep breaths and reframe your thoughts? Maybe you express yourself assertively and decide to take constructive action instead? Do you practice mindfulness, or do you prefer to go for a long walk to help you cope?
The first step to effective stress management, is to identify the cause of the stress that you’re currently experiencing. Once you’ve identified the stressor, then take action by putting some practical strategies in place as highlighted below.
Some general stress managements tips that can help are to:
- keep physically active on a regular basis – exercise helps to boost our overall mood and energy
- practice some relaxation or deep breathing techniques – this releases endorphins and helps us feel good
- keep a journal or share your thoughts with a trusting loved one – this can help you find perspective
- take some time out and listen to your favourite music, take a bath, spend some time in the garden, read your favourite book or magazine, watch a movie on Netflix, play with your dog – participate in activities that make you feel good and happy
- prioritise your health by quitting smoking, eating nutritious foods, limiting your alcohol intake, drinking lots of water as well as getting a good night’s sleep – making positive lifestyle choices will help to boost your immunity and will overall help to improve your physical and mental health during this unsettling time
- seek counselling if you’re experiencing high levels of stress
What can also help? The 4As
What can also help are the 4As which were developed by the Mayo Clinic.2 The 4As are to Avoid, Alter, Accept and Adapt. Depending on what you’re currently experiencing the 4As may or may not apply, so focus on the ‘A’ that works for you, and reflect on what you could put in practice today to help you manage your stress.
Let’s look at the 4As individually…
Depending on the situation and the underlying problem, it may or may not be possible to avoid the stressor. For example, I may not be able to avoid the media coverage about the number of deaths globally due to the Coronavirus, but I can choose to not turn on the TV and/or limit my use of social media.
If conversations with your family about the virus get you worked up (and whether you need to wear a mask or not!), try and avoid having those conversations with your family in the first place.
Not all stressors however can be avoided, so the next three 3As can help.
Think about how you’ve coped in the past and what you could do this time around. Take control by taking the necessary steps that are right for you. This may include debriefing with a loved one about how you’re currently feeling; learning to say ‘no’ to extra demands; taking some time out by going for a short walk around the block, or establishing set routines.
Without taking some form of action, what you are experiencing may remain the same. This may also include setting clear boundaries with your family or employer, and expressing yourself assertively on how ‘those particular conversations’ make you feel…
No matter how much we try, some situations and/or people that cause us stress cannot be changed. We cannot change for example, the current COVID-19 situation – it is what it is. What we can do however, is to reframe our thoughts in a positive way to help us better cope and manage effectively.
On the flip side, when we focus on the negative and how angry this current situation is making us feel, all this does, is to fuel our stress and anxiety and fear. At the end of the day, it does not resolve the current situation we’re facing. Instead, a more empowering and positive statement to make is, “I am in control and I can handle this.” Reflect on what you can do and how you will handle the situation moving forward.
A popular affirmation used by many is also the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
COVID-19 is a unique experience and the current measures in place won’t last forever – “this too shall pass”.
Even when our life isn’t going according to plan, take some time to focus on what is good in your life. The research shows that people who keep a gratitude journal and focus on what is currently going well for them, are better able to cope with life’s challenges – it not only helps to put things into perspective, but also helps to build our resilience.
Another useful question to ask yourself, is whether what you’re currently experiencing will matter in 6 months’ time, or in a year’s time. It can help to bring some clarity and perspective to the situation, and may help a stressful situation seem less so. If however, it does matter and it will matter in 6 months’ time, then take action today to manage your stress, or seek professional guidance to help you objectively cope with the current situation…
The final A builds on the one above and is about learning to adjust to the situation. This often involves changing your expectations of others and the situation that is causing you stress. Your attitude – positive or negative plays a key role…
Start by being proactive and by taking control of your actions. You can do this by adapting your behaviour and by continuing to follow basic hygiene rules to slow the virus, and to prevent further spread. This includes as recommended by Government officials and health professionals to:
- wash your hands as often as you can
- avoid touching your face and mouth after touching surfaces
- stay at home
- if you need to go out, practice social distancing (stay more than 1.5 metres from other people)
- cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze (with a flexed elbow or tissue, not your hand). If you’ve used a tissue, wash your hands afterwards
- avoid public gatherings and limit get-togethers with family and friends
- avoid handshaking, hugging and kissing
- carry hand sanitiser or wipes and use them after taking public transport
- avoid spending time with people who are sick
- if you are unwell or at risk (e.g. you have recently returned from travel), avoid contact with vulnerable people including the elderly and patients in hospital or aged care facilities and stay at home
Take a moment to stay calm and to carry on…
Even just pausing for a moment and being mindful of that moment by taking a few long deep breaths, can help bring some clarity to the situation, and can help you move forward.
Stress, fear, anxiety (and the resulting behaviour of panic buying) are all contagious – so too is your sense of calm and positive energy. Inspire others by staying calm and by carrying on in an encouraging way. You can do this by:
- keeping perspective and maintaining a positive mindset – reframe your thoughts by reminding yourself that this experience WILL pass
- focusing on the present moment and what you can control – i.e. you choose to stay at home and to practice good hygiene
- letting go of what you can’t control by accepting the current situation is what it is
- sticking to a regular routine – getting up at the same time every day and trying not to stay in your pjs all day!
- taking good care of your physical and mental health – continue to exercise regularly; eat nutritious meals; drink lots of water and get a good night’s sleep
- limiting your viewing of the news and social media about the virus – watch and read feel good stories of random acts of kindness during this time
- chatting and connecting with your loved ones and friends by phone or video calls, or seek professional counselling if you are looking for further support
- being considerate of other people’s needs – we’re all in this together and toilet paper and pasta will still be available! 😊
Reflect on this post and think about what you could to do today (and every day) to help you navigate this uncertain time in a positive way.
Remember if you’re continuing to struggle with good mental health during this time, seek professional help. This advice also applies if you are experiencing chronic stress such as ongoing relationship or financial problems, workplace bullying, or if you’re suffering from a chronic health condition, it is important to seek professional help. Speak to your doctor, speak to a counsellor, and where appropriate, request additional support from your loved ones…
If you would like further information on managing during this troubling time, we have provided various links below from credible sources, including useful strategies by the Australian Psychological Society, Lifeline and Beyond Blue on how to cope whilst in self-isolation or quarantine, as well as an excellent video on mindfulness by an expert in the field – Associate Professor Craig Hassed from Monash University’s Mindfulness Program.
We hope you enjoyed this post, and until next time wishing you all great health and wellbeing, including less stress during this uncertain time!
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1. Aldwin, C. (2012). Stress and coping across the lifespan. In S. Folkman (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Stress, Health, and Coping: Oxford University Press.
2. The Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit organization and an internationally renowned medical practice and medical research group. For further information, visit http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
ADDITIONAL SUPPORTING MATERIAL AND RESOURCES
Australian Psychological Society: Coronavirus (COVID-19) information for Australians
Monash University video: Keeping Calm and Carrying on During COVID-19 | Mindful Moment with Craig Hassed
World Health Organization infographic: Coping with stress during the 2019-nCoV outbreak