Ask a Researcher: Tips for Managing Stress During COVID-19 (Part 1)

Published October 13, 2020

Stressed person sitting in street.
“It is important for us all to maintain a good foundation of coping skills and stick to a series of best practices while we are social distancing in an effort to maintain positive mental health.”

Managing stress is difficult at the best of times. It is even trickier during a worldwide pandemic. COVID-19 has impacted everyone, and its ramifications will be felt for years to come. The mental health of children and adults is one notable example.

University at Buffalo researcher Yu-Ping Chang, PhD, RN, FGSA, FAAN, FIAAN, has recognized the importance of self-care and proper coping mechanisms during this topsy-turvy time. Chang is the Patricia H. and Richard E. Garman Endowed Professor; Associate Dean for Research & Scholarship; Department Chair — Family, Community & Health Systems Sciences; UB School of Nursing; a CTSI KL2 Mentor; and a CTSI Pilot Study Co-Principal Investigator. Her areas of interest include substance abuse and depression in older adults, as well as dementia care.

In this two-part interview, Chang explores the impacts of the pandemic on families and outlines ways to cope with the stresses associated with COVID-19.

Part 1: Coping Mechanisms for Adults and Children

What makes this current pandemic so impactful on our mental health/self-care?

The onset of COVID-19 caused many of us to have to make drastic and sudden changes to the way we lived our lives. The concept of social distancing suddenly became the new normal. For many, these sudden changes may not be easy to cope with, and this whole situation is likely causing us all to experience varying levels of fear, stress, anxiety, or depression.

In fact, research from the 2002 SARS pandemic (which was actually a different kind of coronavirus) showed that the experience of social isolation can result in considerable psychological stress in the form of depressive symptoms, even causing some people to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Further, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that nearly half of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the COVID-19 virus. This stress manifests itself physiologically, leading to increased incidence of multiple health problems which are already a concern for many populations, such as the elderly and others living in disadvantaged communities across the country.

The introduction of COVID-19 has further worsened the extreme inequality in healthcare for many communities, as well. COVID-19 is not only infecting and killing African Americans in disproportionate numbers but it is also forcing individuals to risk their health and lives as essential workers, to care for family members who become sick, to attempt to self-isolate in crowded living conditions, or to manage day-to-day life if they have lost their job. This has a deep impact on an individual’s ability to cope and is seriously affecting mental health in a negative way.

What are some recommended coping mechanisms for dealing with the stresses of COVID-19?

It is important for us all to maintain a good foundation of coping skills and stick to a series of best practices while we are social distancing in an effort to maintain positive mental health. Some tips include:

  • Maintain a set schedule with structure. In order to combat the disorientation that is being caused by the need to practice social distancing, it is important to establish a set schedule with structure and boundaries. This involves going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Find a set space to attend online classes and do work that is quiet and private — not a bed.  Maintain a healthy eating schedule and incorporate nutritious foods in your diet. It is also important to schedule time for leisure, exercise and social interactions. A set routine will help to give the day purpose and alleviate boredom. Avoid sleeping in, excessive naps or binge-watching TV.
  • Take a break from stressful media. While it is vital for us all to be informed, constant attention to media updates or the excessive watching of coronavirus related reports can cause further stress. Schedule a time to check in with a trusted news source for important updates, but avoid overdoing it.
  • Take care of your body. Get good sleep. Quality and sufficient sleep not only supports your immune system, but it also helps to manage stress and regulate mood. Find time to move. Exercise is scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and depression. We can still go outside for a walk, a jog, or even a bike ride, but remember that it is still important to maintain that six-foot distance from others. There are also many videos on YouTube or other apps that you can use to go through an exercise routine or to practice yoga. Lastly, find some time to meditate or practice a mindfulness routine. Take time to connect with your body and mind to truly process how you are coping.

Can children use these same coping mechanisms or are there other recommendations for them?

The coping mechanisms described above can benefit everyone, regardless of age. However, especially as school-age children are returning to a very different school year, it is extra important to take steps to help alleviate their potential stress. While there is some overlap with the above, the main thing to do for children is to create healthy routines for them. Having a routine helps children of all ages, whether they are going to school in-person or virtually. Some key routines include:

  • Wake up and go to sleep around the same time every day
  • Get ready with a set routine in the morning and before bed
  • Eat healthy meals and healthy snacks at set times throughout the day
  • Have time set aside without screens
  • Go outside, exercise or do physical activities
  • Have scheduled social time as well as scheduled relaxing time

One easy thing to do is to write a schedule down for children and to display it somewhere that is easy for them see. With younger children, invite them to create the schedule with you by drawing or coloring. With older children, get them their own planner or calendar to use. This is a difficult and stressful environment for children in which to receive an education, but with support and resources we can better prepare them and be there for them.

In part two of this interview, Chang discusses the importance of maintaining social connections, while also exploring warning signs to watch for in loved ones.

For immediate support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Help is available 24 hours a day in English and Spanish.