Disaster-Related Stress in the Time of Coronavirus

Adjusting the way you use time can be a powerful way to cope.

Posted Mar 26, 2020

Source: Pixabay

Confrontation with the coronavirus and COVID-19 catapulted the world into shock. Both the reality of the virus’s impact and the unknowns that surround it contribute to what the American Red Cross calls “disaster-related-stress.” 

Resources listed below offer different kinds of help in dealing with such stress. Each week for the near future I will share curated links for learning, entertainment, brief bursts of wonder or amusement, and professionally recommended strategies. Personally, I rely on the timeless psychological truth that “information and structure can help bind anxiety.” The information pole is obvious and amplified by excellent, timely and accurate articles from the CDC, WHO, the American Red Cross, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Therefore, in the coming weeks, I will focus on ways to increase “structure.”

What is “structure”? At its core, it is the ways we use our time. Changes now swirling around us require us to reorganize at least some of our daily lives. Unless you are on any of the front lines of fighting the coronavirus and thus often responding to crises, chances are you need to rethink ways in which you meet your basic needs. These include both self-care and managing relationships with others, whether in your home or at a distance.

Self-care. Keeping our drive system perpetually activated, vigilantly monitoring potential danger, depletes our immune system. Better to slow down and look to internal resources for emotional balance and comfort over what is still an unknown period of time. This is not a sprint but a marathon. As such, it is a great opportunity to build healthier and more rewarding patterns into your life. Whether you are practicing social distancing, quarantine or isolation, this perspective can be helpful. Identify your “basic needs.” Knowing what they are is a first step towards being able to find creative ways of meeting them and assign priorities that make sense as you struggle towards creating a temporary “new normal.”

Self-care begins with recognizing that body, mind and soul are one and that they are affected by the world in which we live. It also requires us to recognize that there are forces beyond our control; focusing on these domains rather than ones that we can influence (or control) can be a recipe for distress rather than providing guidance or comfort. Seek reliable information but limit exposure to that which is repetitive and upsetting, especially that over which you have no control. Concentrate on where you can have an impact:

Body and hygiene. The essentials of caring for your body apply now more than ever. To the extent possible, assign priorities to eating healthy food in reasonable amounts, exercising, and sleeping well and enough. Our bodies and minds repair during sleep. Respect hygiene, adapting your normal rhythms to allow for additional tasks that you may need to take on during social distancing such as haircuts, tending to nails or more frequently cleaning your clothes or surroundings. If you are having difficulties with habits or with sleep, some of the imagery exercises in the resources below may help.

Thoughts and emotions. The most useful tools I can think of are (1) to appreciate the interrelationship of thoughts and emotions, ways in which each affects the other, and (2) to develop habits of noticing your thoughts and emotions so that you can witness their relationships and act mindfully rather than behave impulsively. The first task is observation. The easiest way to master observation is through any of the meditation practices. If you are active, learn walking or running meditation; if you are quiet, choose a still practice that speaks to you. The important part is to develop the skills through repetition. You are able to train your brain to observe your reactions rather than act on thoughts or emotional impulses. 

Relationships. I began this blog more than three years ago with six articles about the importance of relationships in various contexts. Each Sunday throughout 2017, I published a separate way to “show” love. Periodically I have returned to relationships and how important they can be to the meaning in our lives and thus our well-being. At this time of “social distancing,” people are finding new ways of showing love that are most meaningful to them.

One of my favorite strategies is “Touching,” ill-advised in today’s world of minimizing close contact. Another, however, is “Sharing”; that is what I offer you now. As I collect useful resources for our personal well-being or that of our relationships, I will share them in a brief post that comments on something I have experienced or witnessed during these demanding times. 

Observation #1: It takes 56 seconds to “make” our king-sized bed, pillows plumped and covers smoothed included. For the rest of the day — or at least until we climb into it for a nap — we feel the smile and comfort of a tiny bit of order each time we enter the bedroom. 

Source: Pixabay

Routines matter. Making simple ones like this a part of each day pays dividends. 

Bonus: Periodically, cutting a few branches off plants or trees that are now bursting into bloom — perhaps forsythia in the Northeast or soon-to-come magnolia blossoms — also brings a smile inside for minimal effort beyond remembering to observe buds as they begin to burst. Contact with nature lifts our spirits. What smiles have you built into your routines?

Resources (with apologies if a link is no longer live or has become unavailable):

Learning and entertainment:

Online learning opportunities.

Free broadcasts of symphony, opera and ballet from Opéra de Paris. 

Broadway Live in HD from Travel and Leisure.

Radio France resources for kids who love music.

Virtual tours for international art lovers from The Guardian

Quick smiles:

The European response to support health-care workers.

42 dancers around the world share the same song.

This rendition of the beginning of the 4th movement from Beethoven's Ninth ("Ode to Joy") brought me a huge smile (thank you Bobbi Mark).

Happy imagery from The New York Times.

Professional resources on coping with COVID-19:

American Red Cross overview.

Succinct self-care tips from the New York Times

For reliable updates, the CDC website. 

CDC advice especially for older adults

Guided imagery from Dr. Traci Stein. See also Bethruth Naparstek and Joan Borysenko. They have been using imagery to promote comfort and wellness and reduce stress for many years.  

Brilliant advice from grief-expert David Kessler. 

A bit less "professional," but Jennifer Senior's piece on marriage during the coronavirus pandemic is marvelous.

Copyright 2020 Roni Beth Tower