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Managing anxiety, worry and stress through the pandemic

By SCOTT A. JENSENApr 20, 2020

At times of crisis, as with the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us experience increased stress and concern, and then too often respond in ways that actually worsen or makes more difficult our situation. Here are a few suggestions on managing your emotional state through the pandemic, several of which you may have also heard before. Obviously, there are many other ideas and responses that can help, as well.

Recognize that your emotions are normal and OK — Responses to difficulty vary significantly across individuals, with some feeling more calm and others feeling significant worry and the whole range in between. Whatever you are feeling is a normal response and you don’t need to feel worried further about whether your emotions are “right.” For those feeling more stressed and anxious, most people find that actively trying to change those emotions (e.g. telling yourselves to stop feeling tense and calm down) tends to not work and to actually increase stress. Emotions are a response to your thoughts and brain processes, and they are most likely to change through other suggestions rather than trying to actively change them.

Manage news consumption carefully – Research on previous disasters and crises suggest that one of the best predictors of individuals having a traumatic experience is the amount of news coverage they consume (watching, listening and reading). Yes, you want to stay informed, but that can be accomplished through a single, planned check per day rather than extensive watching or reading.

Purposely seek encouragement and positivity – In addition to news coverage, it is helpful and wise to purposely seek stories and information that uplifts and encourages. If you have extra time on your hands, you may want to read a good book, reach out individually to those you care about, or find someone else who needs encouragement. Many find turning to spiritual sources valuable in times like these. Turning to other positive sources can give a real boost to your overall morale and spiritual and emotional stability.

Seek routine and schedules Our human brains desperately want predictability. One of the biggest negative impacts from a pandemic or other disaster is the lack of ability to predict exactly what will come next. Our brains don’t like it and try to tell us that something is terribly wrong. In response, one of the best things we can do is to increase the predictability in our lives by following routines and schedules. By starting each day by making a plan for how our day will go can be very reassuring and the same is true for our children. As we can create new routines, and maintain previous ones, we help calm and assure our brains that things are OK.

Fill our time with meaning and connection – In addition to our desire for predictability, we are social beings and we crave meaning — engaging in behaviors that we believe have purpose and lead to long-term benefits for ourselves and others. Many of us have had our schedules disrupted. Some find themselves busier and others less busy as a result. Let’s plan carefully what we engage in. Find ways to connect through technology with others and also to engage in activities that you believe bring meaning and purpose in your lives. Find ways to serve others in addition to managing your own well-being. This gives us a boost and increases calm.

Be active and in the sun Exercise and activity are some of the most universal and effective mental health treatments. In addition, the sun brings both physical and mental well-being. Though we want to be careful with social distancing, going outdoors to engage in activity and exercise regularly is a wonderful way to help manage our stress and keep us engaged in meaningful activity.

Helping children manage their emotions in response to COVID-19 Children rely a lot on their parents’ reactions to guide their own reactions. One of the best things we can do is to manage our own emotions well using the above recommendations. Also, helping them to follow the same recommendations and talking about them together can be helpful. Finally, in regards to talking with children about COVID-19 and its impacts, let their questions guide your answers. Don’t try to hide information from them, but you also don’t need to answer questions they are not asking. Be honest and open with them. You can share your own emotional response, but be an example of acting and overcoming concern.

Scott A. Jensen is a professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. His research focuses on parenting and child behavior problems, and especially interventions to help improve child behavior. He is a licensed psychologist. Scott and his wife Holly have 10 children – eight girls and two boys. As a family they enjoy reading together, camping, playing games, swimming and most other outdoor activities.

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