How do I cope with the stress and anxiety of a pandemic?

Managing the impact of COVID-19 with nine simple strategies.

6 April 2020

 Cat sitting in a window


In just a few weeks, we’ve gone through unprecedented changes. The COVID-19 pandemic has had major impacts on the way we live. You might be experiencing a range of emotions and everyone is handling it differently. While much is out of our control at the moment, there are things you can do to support wellness, connection and joy in your life. We hope you find today’s article helpful as you navigate this challenging time.


1. Limit media exposure

Constantly following the news can be overwhelming. Choose a couple of reputable sources and decide when and how often to check them. You want to stay informed so that you can stay safe, but you don’t want to be bombarded with information. Limiting your exposure can help reduce your anxiety and free up some time to do other more productive things.

2. Know the facts about COVID-19

Sharing the facts about COVID-19 and understanding the actual risk to yourself and your loved ones can make this pandemic less stressful. For most people, the risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 is thought to be low, with 80% of people recovering without special treatment. Older adults and people who suffer from underlying medical conditions may be at a higher risk for more serious complications and possible death.

There are simple things that you can do to help prevent the spread of the virus, while also protecting yourself and others. Regularly check the Alberta Health Services website for the latest guidelines and information.

3. Nip worst-case scenarios in the bud

Part of getting through this time in our lives is to accept this new normal, for as long as it lasts. We don’t know what the upcoming few months will bring and speculating can cause us more suffering.

It’s easy to start thinking about worst-case scenarios. However, brainstorming ways to deal with negative events is more helpful than ruminating over “what ifs.” We also don’t want to fully avoid the realities of what’s going on as avoidance strengthens the perception that we cannot handle it thus creating greater anxiety.

Facing one worst-case scenario at a time, realizing that even the most difficult situations have a way of passing, and considering ways to handle difficult situations moves you from a position of fear to one of planning and preparation.

Consider planning what you will do when this all passes as a final step in this strategy. Allow yourself to have something special to look forward to when we get through this.

4. Satisfy your need for physical touch

We’re nourished by meeting face to face, making eye contact, and physical touch, but right now it exposes us to the coronavirus. As time passes, the lack of touch can be stressful, especially for those who rely on its physical and psychological benefits. The touch from another human slows down the heart, helps us regulate our emotional experience, and enhances serotonin, the natural antidepressant in our system.

"The need for touch is very much like the need for food. You may satiate yourself for today, but tomorrow the need will return” says, Rinatta Paries, Certified Relationship Specialist with the American Psychotherapy Association. So what do we do when we have to be 6 feet apart and are mandated to self-isolate? Consider trying a few of Rinatta’s suggestions to keep your craving for touch well nourished.

  • Stimulate your skin. Choose the softest sheets, blankets and pillows, and very soft clothing. Pay attention to the objects that surround you and see if you can bring in some items specifically pleasing to the touch. Amazon still delivers!
  • Give yourself comfort and pleasure. Find ways to comfort yourself like a soothing cup of tea, practicing meditation, or listening to lofi beats, sitting by the fire and hearing the wood crackling. Go for a brisk walk to feel the pleasure of the sun, wind or even the coolness of snow on your skin.
  • Get furry hugs. Petting an animal brings pleasure and lets you physically connect with a being that loves you unconditionally. You could even cuddle your pet in bed or foster a new furry member of the family.
  • Give and get hugs. If you’re isolating with others, hug each other! Your parents might actually appreciate a hug. If you’re with a partner, create opportunities for physical touch, hold their hands, give them a foot or shoulder rub or create moments for intimacy.
  • Move your body. Exercise, dance, and walk. Movement can increase your endorphins, improve your fitness and help you feel good about yourself.


5. Create a routine

Taking the time to create and maintain a routine is absolutely necessary during this ever-changing time. Even while you are self-isolating keep your regular routines especially for sleeping, eating, and medications.

Shower and get dressed to start your day. If you are working from home, set up a dedicated workspace and if possible avoid working from your bedroom so that your sleep is not disturbed. If you are a student, schedule study time during the day. Use the Pomodoro Technique to balance studying and break times.

Consider scheduling movement into your day. Plan for small, achievable goals. Stretch on a foam roller or do some light cardio. Check out an online exercise class like those offered for FREE on YMCA360 and YEGFitness,  or go outside for a walk or outdoors. End the day with pleasant rituals such as catching up with friends over video, playing a multiplayer game, or reading. Use a calendar app or a timetable to give structure to your day.

Stress and worry can lead to overeating and snacking while self-isolating too. “You’re in a constant state of not knowing what’s going on, you’re fearful, and that makes it tough to eat healthily,” said University of Alberta nutrition expert Sabina Valentine. Check out her suggestions on  Seven Expert Tips for Healthy Eating while you’re Staying Home or the World Health Organization guide on Food and Nutrition Tips During Self-Quarantine. If the grocery budget is a little tight right now consider Budget Bytes to help you budget while grocery shopping.


6. Stay connected

Social distancing and self-isolation measures can make you feel disconnected from others. While it is important to practice reasonable distancing guidelines, our relationships with friends, family, and colleagues are an important source of support and identity. Maintaining those connections through creative means can help you stay healthy

Try a group video call using What’s App, Facebook messenger, or Houseparty. Talk to your main supports and determine how and when you will connect. Eliminate distractions when you are talking to them. A five-minute conversation when you have someone’s full attention can make a big difference in how you feel.

For those who are a little uneasy with long conversations, try keeping each other company online while you go on with your day or trying out a few of these ideas How to Stay Connected with Friends while Social Distancing or 15 Things to Do in Residence while Social Distancing. Did you know Chrome has an extension called Netflix Party that allows you to simultaneously stream Netflix with friends? It has a chat window and it synchronizes the whole group on the same movie.

Lastly, for those needing a little more support, remember that Counselling and Clinical Services remains open. Our services look a little different but we continue to support new and existing clients via telehealth. The Peer Support Centre also remains a great resource. Student volunteers are booking appointments and continuing to support their peers online. 

7. Be gentle and understanding of grief during this time

Today we are all grieving. We are grieving the loss of our freedom, a predictable future, the lives and roles we used to have before the coronavirus. We are all experiencing a degree of grief. Many of us are fearful about work, health, our families, and our shared future in ways that were unimaginable just a short time ago.

It might be difficult to even acknowledge the loss in the midst of a global pandemic, but it is understandable to feel sad, or angry if a loved one is sick, if you cannot visit your family, or if you are no longer able to attend important events that you were looking forward to, such as your graduation or a long-awaited holiday.

Be kind to yourself and your feelings right now, it is understandable to feel out of sorts with all of these changes.

8. Practice kindness, compassion, and gratitude

If you are hunkered down in a small space with family or friends, try to be kind and generous in your interactions and how you are thinking about yourself as well as others. Practicing kindness and compassion can help us all cope with the stress of having less private space and the uncertainty of global events. To learn how to practice self-compassion and extend this to others, check out Dr. Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion website.

At the end of each day take time to reflect on what you are thankful for. Try and be specific and notice new things each day, for example, “I am grateful that it was sunny at lunchtime so I could sit in the yard.” You could start a gratitude journal or text friends randomly to let them know what you appreciate most about them. Encourage other people in your home to get involved. 

9. Connect with humor

“Every time you are able to find some humor in a difficult situation YOU WIN” Joubert Botha.

A sense of humor can be an amazing line of defense when it comes to coping with stress. Developing a sense of humor about life’s challenges is a great place to start. It will help you build resilience to stress as well as improve your overall physical and emotional health. It will help you bond with others, look at things in a different way, normalize your experience, and keep your relationships strong.

Find a friend or group of friends with whom you can share your frustrations and challenges, and laugh about them (your concerns I mean, not your friends) in the process. Watch funny shows and movies, and if you want a good laugh, check out these hilarious videos created specifically for the coronavirus pandemic: 


Remember that what is happening right now is unprecedented.  All of us are affected.  There is no right or wrong way to feel or to react to a situation that none of us have ever faced before, but we can rely on what we already know to help us maintain our physical and mental health in this unique event. We are all in this together. Let’s take it one day at a time.   

Written by Maddalena Genovese, Registered Psychologist University of Alberta Counselling and Clinical Services.

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