Coping and Caring for Yourself During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Tips and tricks to manage stress through self-care.

Posted Mar 25, 2020

 Keegan Houser/Unsplash
Source: Keegan Houser/Unsplash

By Dr. David C. Wang

Infectious disease outbreaks, such as the one currently unfolding, can be stressful and take a toll on our mental health and well-being. Because many of us have never lived through an outbreak in our lifetime, chances are that the strategies we utilized in the past to cope with difficult life stressors may no longer be adequate to meet the needs and challenges of this present season. Now that the world has changed, we, too, need to change and adapt alongside it as well. And this applies, now more than ever, to how we cope and care for ourselves.

With the uncertainty over when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, we cannot perpetually put off our own mental and emotional needs in order to focus on others. At some point, our own unattended needs will compromise our capacity to be helpful. To care for others well, during this season of Coronavirus, will require us to learn how to care for ourselves at the same time. Here are some practical steps you can take to ensure that you are properly attending to your own needs so that you can in turn sustainably attend to the needs of others.

  1. Take the necessary steps to protect yourself and your loved ones. The World Health Organization suggests staying informed but avoiding overexposure to news that might cause you to feel anxious or distressed. And once you are able to take reasonable and well-informed measures to ensure the safety of you and your loved ones.
  2. Acknowledge that you need to cope. You can’t cope with an emotion or a problem that you are unwilling to accept that you have. “I shouldn’t feel anxious or tired or overwhelmed because my circumstances aren’t as dire as others” is the language of denial. Others can have legitimate needs and you can have legitimate needs both at the same time. Don’t let your denial become the burden of those around you.
  3. Be mindful of how you compensate for your lack of control. It is entirely human to seek out certainty and any semblance of control in the midst of a disorienting and rapidly-changing environment. Some of us compensate through vigilant and meticulous micromanagement (which will often lead to angry outbursts at the slightest derailment), while others compensate through disengagement or helpless surrender. Even our drive to find a source of blame for our problems is tied to control. What is needed for such a time as this has been nicely captured by Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
  4. Stay in the present moment. Broadly speaking, anxiety is reflected in a mind that is perpetually oriented to the future, while depression is reflected in a mind that is perpetually oriented to the past. Staying in the present moment (or even in the present day) ensures that the burdens we carry today are just today’s burdens (rather than the burdens of yesterday and tomorrow as well).
  5. Take care of your body. Eat healthy, regular meals—to the extent that you are able. Exercise regularly. Spend time outside. Breathe deeply. Get plenty of sleep and avoid strenuous mental or physical activities as you approach bedtime. Avoid/limit alcohol and drugs.
  6. In moments of acute distress, distract yourself. While holding your breath, splash your face with cold water or press the area between your eyebrows with a cold pack (this triggers what scientists call the "dive response"). Engage in intense exercise for a short time, like running, jumping, doing sit-ups. And then afterward, watch your favorite comedy on Netflix or YouTube. And while you’re doing that, enjoy your favorite snack (I love BBQ Lays Chips).
  7. Stay connected with others and reach out for support. Research suggests that one of the most consistent and powerful predictors of resilience and recovery in the face of emotionally distressful situations is social support—being reminded that others care and that we are not alone. Social support can be emotional (aimed at meeting emotional needs), instrumental (aimed at meeting practical needs), formal (with professionals such as psychologists or counselors), and informal (with family and friends). All of it is helpful and at any given point, we may find ourselves needing one form more than another.

For additional resources, see NAMI's COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Information and ResourcesAmerican Psychiatric AssociationAmerican Psychological Association: PandemicsAnxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)Psychology Today Therapist Directory, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If you’re feeling alone and struggling, you can also reach out to The Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741 or to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255.

David C. Wang, Th.M., Ph.D., is an associate professor at Rosemead School of Psychology (Biola University) and a licensed clinical psychologist.