Dealing With Stress and Trauma During a Pandemic
A pandemic, or any other type of emergency, crisis, or disaster, can trigger a great deal of stress. Some people are equipped to cope with that stress in positive, productive ways, while others struggle more. The damage caused by these incidents can even lead to mental illness and trauma. Take steps to practice healthy coping strategies, to mitigate stress where possible, to engage in self-care and care for others, and to seek professional help if necessary.
The COVID-19, or coronavirus, pandemic has impacted the world in incredible ways. What may often be overlooked is how a pandemic damages mental health. Some people may cope better than others in this difficult situation, but most experience stress and some may even develop a trauma disorder.
Getting professional mental health care is always important when you experience overwhelming symptoms and cannot function normally. During this time, it is particularly necessary to monitor your mental health, to take steps to deal with stress in healthy ways, and to seek out that professional support as needed.
How a Disaster Affects Mental Health
A disaster like a pandemic has the potential to be so damaging to mental health because it causes fear, anxiety, stress, and uncertainty. A pandemic triggers a lot of changes to normal life and daily routines. You may feel like your world has been turned upside down, and you don’t know when, or if, it will get back to normal.
Some people may be more vulnerable and may have a stronger, more negative reaction to the stress of this current situation:
- Children and teens, especially with the routine of school and activities disrupted
- Older adults and people with chronic illnesses who are more vulnerable to the infection
- Health care providers, first responders, and other caregivers working directly with infected patients and at risk of being exposed to the virus
- Anyone with an existing mental illness or a substance use disorder
The stress and worry you feel now can impact you in a number of ways. You may experience physical symptoms, such as changes in eating or sleeping habits; you may fear for your own well-being and that of loved ones; concentrating on normal tasks may become difficult; you may increase use of drugs or alcohol in an attempt to cope.
If you have an existing mental illness, the stress can worsen symptoms or trigger a relapse. Physical health conditions may also worsen during this time, as stress is known to be a factor in chronic illnesses, like heart disease.
How to Manage Stress in a Pandemic
How you react to the current situation depends on many factors, such as whether or not you have a strong support network. Some people will naturally struggle more than others, but everyone can reasonably expect to feel stressed, anxious, and worried. To fortify your mental health, manage what you can control, which includes how you react to stress:
1. Stay Up to Date and Take Reasonable Precautions.
One of the biggest contributors to stress and panic during a crisis is the wave of information, and misinformation. However, it’s important to be able to control what you can in these situations, and that means staying reasonably well informed.
A pandemic is scary, even more so when you don’t know what is happening. Follow daily updates from reputable news sources. Take the advice of medical experts on precautions to take for yourself and your family, but don’t go overboard. Panic and overreaction will only increase stress. Take reasonable control of those things you can and you’ll feel better.
2. Turn Off the News and Get Distracted.
That being said, you also don’t want to listen to the news all day long. Set aside a few times a day, maybe first thing in the morning, in the afternoon, and at dinner, in order to get the updates you need. Other than that, turn it off and do something else.
Distraction from distressing events is a powerful way to mitigate stress. This can take any number of forms. If you are working from home, dive into the day’s project and shut out the news. Without any work to do, it’s easy to get sucked into stress and worry. Find a home project for distraction instead. Tackle a big cleaning chore or a new hobby you’ve been wanting to try. Anything that takes your mind off the current events will be helpful.
3. Create and Stick With a Daily Routine.
Even if your normal life has been completely upended, you can still create a routine. Routine is beneficial for mental health. It can help mitigate stress, anxiety, and depression, and help you feel more control in your life when everything else feels out of control. A routine is especially helpful with children who have been sent home from school. Creating a new daily routine will help them feel more settled and normal.
4. Build Social Connection Any Way You Can.
Distancing yourself from others is essential for everyone’s safety during a pandemic, but that can lead to social isolation and more stress. The term social distancing implies that you have to be alone and lonely, but it doesn’t. In reality, what you need to be safe is physical distance.
You can still connect with your friends and family online, over the phone, and even through letters. Make it a point to contact at least one person per day, especially if you live alone. This will help you feel more connected to your social network.
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5. Get Exercise and Fresh Air.
Being cooped up inside leads to the dreaded cabin fever: restlessness, irritability, anger, and distress. Even in the midst of a pandemic, it’s safe to go outside and get some exercise, unless of course where you live has specifically outlawed this.
If you can, go outside at least once per day to walk, get fresh air, and enjoy the sounds, scents, and sights of nature. According to research, spending just an hour or so outside can boost your mood and energy, relieve stress, depression and anxiety, and help you feel more connected to the outside world.
6. Create Boundaries With Family.
Some people during a pandemic are facing total isolation at home, while others have family. This is a double-edged sword. Being home alone with family day after day, especially if you are not used to it, can also cause distress.
Spend time together doing positive activities to bust stress, but also make sure you each get alone time. Set aside times when everyone must be quiet and do their own thing, ideally in different parts of the house. And, when you feel in danger of losing your temper, take it outside for even just a few minutes to breathe and regroup.
Have You Been Traumatized?
Stress is one thing, and it is damaging, but a pandemic can also cause trauma. Trauma is a reaction to stressful, frightening, and dangerous situations. Some people in this situation may become traumatized, while others do not. If you think you or someone you care about is experiencing trauma right now, it’s important to get professional support. Trauma disorders do not just go away with time. They persist and cause ongoing harm and distress.
Some of the signs of trauma include:
- Persistent, negative emotions like fear, anger, irritability, anxiety, shock, and denial
- Confusion, disorientation, and difficulty concentrating
- Feeling guilty or ashamed and self-blaming
- Feeling disconnected from others or from the world
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Persistent, disturbing thoughts or memories
- Getting startled and frightened too easily
- Being on edge and feeling tense and agitated
Getting Mental Health Care
With signs of trauma you must seek out professional care. An expert can help you process the traumatic experience and learn how to manage difficult emotions and thoughts. Depending on the severity of your situation, you may even need residential care. A residential facility where you can live and focus on treatment for a few months will help you feel safe.
Even if you don’t think you have been traumatized, the stress of a situation like a pandemic has a cumulative, damaging effect. If you’re not coping well, you can benefit from professional support. A therapist or treatment program will address your coping mechanisms and help you develop more productive behaviors and actions.
Remember that these difficult times will eventually get better. Stressful and traumatic situations can be damaging, but they do not last forever. Rely on your loved ones, be prepared, learn to relax and distract, and get professional help if you need it. You will get through this.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, and other mental health issues. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.