COVID Stress Can Rev Up Frustration: 8 Ways to Downshift

Constant stress can harm mental and physical health. Eight ways to feel better.

Posted Aug 03, 2020

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Karly* said, “Everything and everyone is getting on my nerves. I love my kids, and I’m so worried about what life with coronavirus is doing to them. But I can’t stand to be around them anymore! And my husband and I are sniping at each other from morning till night. I remember that not so long ago I loved him, but I can’t get in touch with any of those feelings right now. I can’t stand to be in the same room with him—I don’t even want him to touch me. I need time off—a vacation—not just from work, but from everything and everybody. But there’s no time off from COVID. Summer’s my favorite time of year, but not this year. I’m trying to work, to give my kids some kind of social life, and to figure out what I’m going to do about school this fall. I’m on edge all the time. Even little things are making me lose my temper. I’m so cooked.”

“I got in a stupid fight with my brother yesterday,” Eric* said. “And I woke up this morning and thought, ‘OK, enough of this. It’s time to move on,’ not just with my brother, but with my life. But there’s no moving on. This pandemic is what right now is all about. People are talking about ‘acceptance’ and ‘finding meaning.’ I don’t see any meaning here. I’m just angry and irritable. All the time. With everyone.”

Louise*, who had just recovered from having the coronavirus herself, said, “Before I got sick I thought that if I had it, I’d feel safer—like I’m immune now. But apparently that’s not necessarily true. And besides that, life hasn’t changed just because I got sick and I’m better. I’m worried about the economy, about the elections, about the Post Office, about what’s going on in Portland and Kansas City and everywhere else in this country. I feel completely helpless. And totally stressed all the time, every minute of every day.”

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, much was written about the fact that we were grieving. David Kessler, a grief expert who worked with Kübler-Ross, and who has since published a new book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, told a Harvard Business Review interviewer that we were feeling many different kinds of grief during the initial weeks of the pandemic.

But now, with the long-term nature of the pandemic and concerns about so many other issues—the economy, the state of the world, politics, human relations, and human rights—it seems that we also need to look at the issue of chronic stress.

According to one group of mental health practitioners in England, stress is “our body’s response to pressures from a situation or life event. What contributes to stress can vary hugely from person to person and differs according to our social and economic circumstances, the environment we live in and our genetic makeup. Some common features of things that can make us feel stress include experiencing something new or unexpected, something that threatens your feeling of self, or feeling you have little control over a situation.”

But while not all stress is bad. In fact, stress is sometimes beneficial, in that it can help us adapt and grow and learn new skills. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic tell us that chronic, unabated stress can be damaging to our bodies and our psyches. 

As a result, we try to escape from stressful situations, sometimes even when the escape itself can lead to danger and further stress. For instance, the desire to socialize, even in situations that are known to be potential breeding grounds for COVID-19, make a little more sense when considered as attempts to find relief from the painful stresses of this pandemic.

But what are some healthy ways to deal with these stresses?

1. Recognize that not everyone deals with stress in the same way, or even feels the same sets of stressors, even in the same situation. That doesn’t make your reactions right or wrong, better or worse. What’s important is to recognize that almost everyone’s emotions are heightened and almost everyone is feeling some kind of stress in relation to what is happening. And those feelings, even if they are not obvious, may be coloring many, if not all, of your experiences in the moment.

2. Make space for your feelings, without judgment. But, and this may feel completely contradictory, at the same time that you are making space for your feelings, take what I call the “grain of salt” approach to maintain some distance from them. In particular, try to remind yourself that what you’re feeling right now might not be the full scope of what you would feel about the same situation or the same person at another time. Acceptance and Commitment therapists (ACT) call this recognizing that your feelings are not facts. Or, as my mother used to say, in situations in which she felt that what seemed to be the truth wasn’t the whole truth, “Take it with a grain of salt.” 

3. Take time for yourself. It may seem harder than ever before to do this, but even if it means letting the kids have an extra hour of screen time while you take a shower, read a magazine, listen to a relaxing podcast (not about the news, please) or watch a show of your own, it will be worth it.

4. Find time to do fun new things on your own and with your family, your partner, your friends, and even with strangers. The Internet, once so despised, has become an incredible resource for all sorts of creative activities and enterprises that can be done while following CDC guidelines for safety.

5. Connect with others—people in your community, your family, your religious or professional organization, your circle of friends—or expand your horizons and meet new people. Again, following safety guidelines, you can connect via the internet with charitable and political organizations. Giving up some time to make connections can be restorative. Feeling like you're doing a small task that is part of a larger project directed at change is the same as doing a small task in your home (see #6 below). It may not look like a lot, but put together, the small pieces make a larger whole. Just remember to continue to find ways to take time for yourself as well.

6. Take pleasure in accomplishing small tasks. One of the difficulties with chronic stress is that it leaves you feeling overwhelmed and helpless. The current situation often feels too big, too unmanageable, and too hopeless for you to do anything about. And the tasks you may have set yourself—clean the house from top to bottom, finally get a handle on your bills, write a novel, change the world—may all simply add to your feelings of being overwhelmed.

So set yourself a small task to do each day—like cleaning one shelf in the fridge, or one shelf in your medicine cabinet, or learning one new word in a foreign language, writing one page of your novel, or doing one very small activity for a political, charitable, or social action group—and when you’ve accomplished it, stop, give yourself a pat on the back—and a break.

7. Take care of your body. In its guidelines for managing stress, the CDC offers these tools for caring for your body: Take deep breaths, stretch. Eat healthy, well-balanced meals. Exercise regularly. Get enough sleep. Avoid excessive alcohol and drug use.

8. Take care of your emotional and mental health. Again, the internet has been a powerful aid to this process. A wide range of online psychotherapy, support groups, and other resources are available; but you can also use the Internet to connect with friends and loved ones, learn a new skill, or teach one—all of which are ways of taking care of your emotional and mental health.

Finally, remember that what feels like endless stress right now will have an end.

A friend told me that she was explaining to her young son about how scientists were looking for a vaccine for COVID-19 much like they had when she was a girl when children were still catching measles and chickenpox. He turned to her and said, “What is chickenpox?”

When he is telling his own children about wearing masks and not being able to go to school, they will very likely ask the same question about COVID-19. 

And perhaps he will be able to tell them, “It’s a bad virus that we don’t have anymore. But at the time we didn’t have any way to treat it, and it caused some horrendous pain and difficulty for a lot of people. But it also gave us some new school systems and new medical approaches and, strangely enough, some new ways to deal with human injustice. And you know what? I also remember some special moments with my parents and brother, because we were all home together for so long. The world learned many things, and a lot of us became better people as a result.”

*Names and identifying info changed for privacy.

Copyright fdbarth@2020.