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Coping with stress and anxiety during the coronavirus outbreak

We have seen high levels of stress and anxiety induced by coronavirus across a large section of the population. Ray Knox is a Management Training Consultant with years of experience supporting businesses manage workloads and mental health. We spoke to him for some advice.


6 min read

Coping With Stress And Anxiety 1

1. Reacting to a Pandemic situation

In 2018, according to the Mental Health Foundation 74% of adults had felt so stressed in the previous year they felt overwhelmed and last year the Health and Safety Executive estimated that 12.8 million days were lost to stress related illnesses and this is all before the current Coronavirus situation.

In his book “The Psychology of a Pandemic” Steven Taylor, Professor at the University of British Colombia has researched previous pandemics and found a rise in racism, panic buying, the rush of the “worried well” to hospitals and people becoming distressed about self-isolation and other forms of social distancing. He also predicted many of these would happen in the next pandemic except for the rush to panic buy toilet paper.

Life has changed over the past months and some people have tried to help others while some seem to be thinking about themselves so what can we do to be the best we can in this unprecedented situation.

Stress and anxiety are normal states for human beings in crisis moments but the stress response is designed for short term action in very specific situations. We are entering a period of uncertainly where we have no certain end date and no idea what the landscape will look like at the end of the current crisis. None of this is good for our ability to take productive steps and to do our best to get through the current situation.

Some people will be natural worriers or have experienced previous mental health issues and this will cause an understandable level of anxiety but I think for us all there will have been an activation of our stress responses. Learning to deal with this will enable us to get through this in as good a shape as possible whilst dealing with isolation from the wider world, restricted circumstances, possible illness and a combination of all of these.

2. So what can I do about it? – 8 Steps to Take

Step 1 - Focus on what is really happening for you

The first step is to focus on what is really happening. Fear of the unknown is what triggers anxiety in most people and we have seen that recently. People are not sure what is going to happen so they might panic buy in case there is no food. This surge in demand can result in shortages so everyone assumes that is the crisis but it is the fear that has driven the problem. People can deal well with facts if they know what is happening but they need to focus on these facts and not start to embellish them with their own take on this. We also need to develop a level of cynicism about what is seen on social media and don’t just assume everything is true. We are a society with lots of information but all this information can lead us to become stressed as we are not sure what is true.

Step 2 - Identify and accept your own circumstances

The next step is to identify your own circumstances and accept that is where you are at. There is no use worrying about what might have happened or where you wanted to be, what has happened and where does that leave you?

We as people like certainty and routine and both have been lost in the past months. Bring as much certainty back into your life as possible by making a plan for where you are at and what you are going to do about it. Ensure you write your plan down as it will help you to achieve it. Linked to this is to create a new routine. If you are now working from home establish a routine that enables that to happen. If the children are with you at home establish whatever routine works with them. If your routine affects others ie family, colleagues etc then involve them if possible in establishing the routine. Control is a key element in dealing with stress and anxiety and making a plan helps you take some control.

Steps 3 and 4 - Make your plan including establishing a routine if life has been disrupted and identify the choices you can make and make an informed decision

Looking at all your circumstances develop your plan to move you forward. If you are coping with a loss of income it might mean making choices on how to reduce expenditure and where you can make savings. Remember just because you do not like a choice does not mean it is not worthwhile looking at it. From the choices make an informed decision as to how to move forward. You need to work out from the choices what is the best one for you. Does it solve the problem? If it doesn’t completely solve the problem does it move you forward? Always aim to select the choice which moves you forward the most effectively.

Step 5 - Practice good self-care

During this time of stress and high anxiety practice good self-care. You need to look after yourself first to enable you to help others. That self- care will include taking regular breaks if working, to take some exercise, get some fresh air unless unable to get out and maintain a good healthy diet. If you have a garden do some work in it as that will provide exercise and a connection with the outdoors which has been shown to be really beneficial in terms of self-care. You could also use the time to try a new hobby or past time. As part of your self-care you should also aim to get plenty of rest and sleep. This can be challenging if you are having negative thoughts and are preoccupied with your problems.

Step 6 - Be kind to others and yourself

Be kind to yourself and to others. Many people can expect more from themselves than from others – we should expect the same from ourselves as we do from others. We should also be kind to others. We have seen selfishness in the form of panic buying and we have also seen kindness from groups being set up to help others. Kindness seems to be something that is not as obvious in the modern world but helping others helps create a caring society. It also makes us feel good about ourselves which is important when life has changed.

Step 7 - Take a break from the news and social media

If you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed by news of the Coronavirus situation then minimise your exposure to news channels and social media. We can expose ourselves constantly to the bad news which is going on so limit your exposure. This does not mean ignoring the situation but you do not need to be bombarded with it constantly. Be kind to yourself and give yourself a break from it.

Step 8 - Don’t be afraid to ask for help – you are not alone

Do not be afraid to ask for help. We are all in this situation together but it will affect us all differently so if you feel isolated or are needing help ask for it. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help but a sign of strength as you are aware you need it.

3. Steps to Minimise Negative Thinking

Underpinning all of this is the ability to minimise negative thinking. As a culture we tend to migrate more easily to negative thinking rather than positive thinking especially when faced with situations which make us anxious or stressed.

To take greater charge of your thoughts consider following these 3 phases:

Phase 1 - Awareness – Identify your thoughts, behaviours and physical reactions of your own distress. This enables you to identify areas which you can target to change.

Phase 2 – Learn and practice restructuring self-talk. Test the meaning and usefulness of various thoughts and practice changing negative thinking patterns. Linked to this is to learn and practice coping skills, relaxation, assertiveness, problem solving etc.

Phase 3 – Apply new responses to events. Challenge unhelpful thinking. Make changes in your life when your thoughts are alerting you to problems that need to be solved.

While changes in thinking are often central, many problems require changes in behaviour, physical functioning and environment.

An example of this in action was when I went through a divorce. I was in a stressful situation and realised that I was thinking very negatively. My thoughts were focused on how awful life would be in the future and how hard it would be. I realised this was not helpful and asked myself what I would do if a client came for some help from me.

Phase 1 – I was aware my thoughts were very negative and this was affecting everything else.

Phase 2 – I asked myself would life be awful in the future – quite simply it might be but it might also be okay or even good. All I could say was that life would be different and I had to try and make it good different rather than bad different.

Phase 3 – From that moment on everytime I tried to react negatively I focused on things being good different. This enabled me to focus more positively and move forward more quickly than I otherwise would have.

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