Managing Anxiety and Stress in Times of Uncertainty — Tips from the APA

News | June 16, 2020

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Our partners at the American Psychological Association (APA) provide tips to manage stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In one of our recent webinars, “Managing Anxiety and Stress in Times of Uncertainty,” the latest in EBSCO’s Global Webinar Series, the American Psychological Association (APA) offered tips for managing stress and anxiety given the current circumstances around COVID-19. Speakers from the APA, Senior Director of Practice Transformation and Quality Dr. Lynn Bufka and Senior Director of Health Care Innovation Dr. Vaile Wright, provided guidance on managing anxiety due to uncertainty, coping mechanisms for having to adapt to a new way of communicating and the importance of establishing routines.

We received several questions from webinar participants. Dr Bufka and Dr. Wright sat down with us to provide responses.

There are lots of great resources being shared online, like music lessons and museum tours. Do you think these resources further increase anxiety and depressive symptoms when I’m not doing all these activities with my children?

As we have all realized, there is no roadmap, and what works well for one person might not be what works for another. It is wonderful that so many resources are being made available online, but at this point, it can feel overwhelming. Right now, figure out what is essential. If you’re fortunate to be able to work, ask “what keeps my job going?” “What is necessary for my children to meet their obligations?” Anything beyond that is icing on the cake! As you settle into routines, you'll have a better sense of what might interest and engage your children, and you can help them select possibilities. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, you would not have them enrolled in 15 different activities, and there is no expectation to do so now. Remember that children need time to explore, and young children especially do a tremendous amount of learning through unstructured play. Children and adolescents need to exercise their ability to entertain themselves. For older children, you can introduce them to online possibilities but then allow them to choose what most interests them. Hopefully, with this approach, you can lessen any self-expectations (or perceived pressure from society) to keep your children actively engaged in culture, arts, and learning during every moment of quarantine. Instead, do what is necessary to get through the day and be flexible to allow your children to explore on their own.

How do I cope with fear and loneliness when I live alone?

Living alone can be hard, especially when your routines are disrupted. Right now, you may not have your usual social contacts, whether it's a friendly ‘hello’ when you get your morning coffee or a conversation with a co-worker as you leave your workplace. Recognize that there will be good days and bad days and work towards accepting that reality. See if you can identify what makes a day a ‘good’ day and try to plan for more of whatever makes a day good to happen on subsequent days. Some people find it essential to schedule social connection time, others develop personal meditation programs, and others pursue a hobby that had always interested them. Use this time for yourself in whatever way works best — finally, guilt-free time to indulge a passion!

At the same time, get a sense of when this new reality seems to be toughest for you and make a plan in advance to engage in something that helps you. If starting your day without social interaction is hard, set up a recurring phone call or Zoom meeting first thing in the morning. If the evenings feel scary or lonely, plan to exercise or watch a favorite movie. Thinking ahead to your more vulnerable times allows you to strategize when you have the energy so that when you are feeling your worst, you don't have to think about what to do to cope but instead can turn to your plan. 

What helps us grieve at a time where we cannot meet with our loved ones to grieve together?

We are used to our rituals at the time of death, and it can be very hard not to have those right now. Brainstorm with other loved ones about alternatives. Can you gather in a parking lot, stand six feet apart and tell stories about the deceased? Can you host a virtual wake? Can you plan a memorial service for a time when you will all be together? Events like these can help us feel supported by others who share our losses. But, remember, grief takes time. Whether you have a large funeral now or privately mourn a loved one's death, you will be reminded of your grief with some regularity over the weeks and months ahead. Allow yourself those times of sadness and remember that other loved ones are also grieving. When you are reminded of your loved one because of a birthday or favorite song, chances are others are, too. You can use that as an opportunity to share your memories with others via a phone call or an email or text. Letting others know you are still grieving acknowledges the fact that they are probably still grieving too.

We saw people panic with the run on grocery stores, stocking up on materials. How should we mentally prepare for the panic caused by the uncertainty of this epidemic?

Now that the initial period of this pandemic is behind us, it is unlikely that we will see similar “panic” behaviors. We will likely see increased fear and anxiety as incidences of cases increases in local communities. As individuals begin to know people with COVID-19, the pandemic will feel more ‘real’ to segments of our population. Naturally, worries and distress will increase at that time. We should continue to assess whether our responses — hand washing, mask-wearing, etc. — are consistent with the best recommendations and in keeping with our personal priorities of keeping ourselves and loved ones safe. Once we have done that, we can acknowledge the uncertainty and our discomfort and work to accept that this may be our state of emotions for some time. When we accept that uncertainty will be with us, it becomes slightly more tolerable. At the same time, we can also try to have some certainty in other spheres of our life, whether it is a consistent sleep schedule, planned phone ‘dates’ with a loved one, or a regular menu of meals. Continuity helps us feel ‘normal’ even when it's not quite so normal.

People are going to be affected in different ways at different times once this is all over. How can people cope with post-traumatic stress and returning to a normal life without anxiety, stress, depression, or feeling social pressures that we should “just get on with it?”

People are very resilient, but some will experience significant long-term mental health outcomes from this isolation at home and global pandemic. Our new ‘normal’ may not resemble our old normal when this is over. Our challenge is to recognize our emotions, acknowledge them, and use them as a guide but not the final answer for decisions we want to make in our lives. Recognize that the face most people present to the outside world is curated. It's a presentation of their best self. Do not use that as your comparison point. Instead, talk to family and friends about how they are doing and support one another as you all come to terms with what you have experienced and grieve whatever (people, graduations, friendships, etc.) you have lost. And if you continue to feel overwhelmed or distressed or unable to do your usual activities — whether as a parent, student, or employee — reach out to a professional to find out if there is more you can do to adapt. Therapy is not a ‘forever’ endeavor but is intended to help you develop the skills and strategies necessary to reduce distress and lead a more satisfying life.

Thank you to our partners at the American Psychological Association (APA) for the discussion.

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