Covid-19 Pandemic: Stress and Anxiety Affects Us All

It has been weeks now since most of us had dinner with friends or went to the gym. In order to flatten the curve and reduce the spread of Covid-19, we wash our hands more often, wear face masks, and most importantly keep our distance from others, hence avoiding places where people congregate.

As nice as it is spending more time at home - and if we are lucky, with our loved ones - this is not a normal situation. Humans are social animals and our main feeling of safety comes from others. Now for medical reasons we have to refrain from being too close to each other at the moment, so it is against our human nature and against what we need to feel safe.

Additionally, we hear news of incomprehensible infection rates and tragic death with unprecedented frequency. We experience drastic government measures and many are feeling the economic impact as a serious threat to their livelihoods. Humans are wired to protect themselves from dangers. When confronted with a threat, the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for emotional processing, sends a signal to the hypothalamus that triggers an instinctive response that raises stress levels.

Currently, we all are experiencing some form of loss, such as loss of freedoms, loss of routine, some have lost their job - and in the worst cases some have had to endure the loss of a family member. Another form of losses is ambiguous loss, which is the uncertainty of a potential loss. Whatever the level of loss, these losses lead to grief and can be traumatic to varying degrees, depending on the magnitude, personality, and coping mechanisms.

So stress and anxiety in this situation are understandable. The good news is, humans are resilient and adaptable. Through awareness and compassion toward self and others, healthy coping strategies, and emotional regulation with trusted loved ones who understand, we find that stress and anxiety can be managed effectively even in these trying times. 

While one of healthy coping strategies is emotional regulation with loved ones, social distancing is now the new norm in our fight against Covid-19. It is important to differentiate social isolation from loneliness: even though we have to be separated from friends and sometimes family, it doesn’t mean we have to be lonely. Through technology, we are able to connect to other people and talk to someone you really trust and confide in when you are struggling, someone that can provide support.

When researchers studied inmates in solitary confinement, they found that people dealt with this extreme situation by going into their imagination and visualizing going for a walk, meeting people, playing their favorite sport or sitting on the beach. People who feel overwhelmed and stressed could try this technique to calm their mind. By tuning into yourself and connecting to your true emotions, you can admit that you are afraid and understand that this can be normal.

When you are authentic about your emotions, you can look at yourself with compassion and acceptance. Similarly, clients find it helpful to anchor themselves in their spirituality and be mindful in the present. Practices like meditation and prayer can help to get peace and create hope in situations beyond our control.
However, at the same time, confinement at home with family can also be a source of stress in itself. Existing difficulties in communication or underlying conflicts can escalate at this time. Be sure to give each other space and structure for communication, with respect to boundaries and opportunities to just be themselves. New roles may be added as families must cook more, drive by themselves, teach children alongside teachers online. It would be best to sit down as a family and discuss roles and new schedules clearly to avoid any miscommunications.

Being overwhelmed with information can also be another issue and there are some measures everyone should take.  It is healthier to not overload yourself with information as our brains are not wired to process such an array of information, which can make us panic, leading to stress and anxiety. The news, as informative as it is, is designed to raise our anxiety levels, so pace yourself and avoid leaving the TV news channel running in the background. Rather, set specific time when to watch to news and avoid watching the news right before going to bed. Also, consider filtering news to obtain information from reliable official sources so that understanding and decisions can be grounded in facts and reality.  This will help you get back to the wise and rational mind, instead of the emotional state of fear and distress. Another helpful tip is, instead of seeing everything in black and white, try to think in terms of spectrum. Ask yourself from zero to hundred where would you be for certain risks. This will help you put things into perspective and give you hope.

Humans are creatures of habit and routines, we like to be in control. Therefore, maintaining some routines, such as regular mealtimes, regular working hours, and exercise and rest times can provide a sense of safety. Creating routines that provide adequate self-care physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually will help you thrive well in these uncertain times.

Also, be sure to notice and find comfort in many acts of kindness and solidarity around you. There are now news of people coming together to fight this disease, creating a sense of unity and belonging, not just within their community, or country, but even as global citizens joining hands together to achieve victory.

By Dr. Jinda Udompanyavit, Senior Coordination Physician and Family Medicine, Bumrungrad International Hospital
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