Pandemics such as COVID-19 spark fear, sadness, anxiety, and erratic behaviors. When fear and anxiety take control, both the emotional parts of our brain and our nervous system are overwhelmed. This response can lead to unhealthy behaviors, panic, and feeling out of control emotionally. If a person has a preexisting mental illness or history with anxiety and depression, it can often worsen and intensify during times such as these. If stress and anxiety worsen, it may trigger negative physical symptoms such as an elevated heart rate, insomnia, digestive issues, weakness, fatigue, and others. If you have been feeling anxious, frustrated, angry or confused, know that you’re not alone. So, take a deep breath, and follow these research-proven strategies to be kind to yourself and improve your mental and emotional well-being.

Here are some tips from Megan Stukenholtz, ARNP, PMHNP-BC, FNP-BC.

Give yourself a break from social media

Take a break from social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Staying informed is important during these unprecedented and unpredictable times, but view and consider news wisely. Be selective of where you are getting information from because social media platforms are not reputable sources and can feed fear instead of reducing it. Instead, go to the CDC and Iowa Department of Public Health websites if you have questions or concerns. Also, focus on social media pages that make you feel good (and not just during this pandemic) for improved well-being.

Avoid “binge watching”

Avoid Netflix, Hulu, Prime, or any type of television “binge watching”. When we participate in an activity that’s enjoyable, such as binge watching, your brain produces dopamine. This gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in the activity. When binge watching, your brain is continually producing dopamine, which is a chemical in your brain that produces the “feel good” feeling in the pleasure and reward part of our brain. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine. When we substitute television for human interaction, we disconnect from our human nature and substitute for virtual. We start relying on this instant gratification to shield us from all the unpleasantness in our real life. Eventually, this addictive behavior leads to problems such as sleep disturbance/insomnia, weight gain, isolation, avoidance of self-care and commitments, and even depression and anxiety symptoms as the series ends.

Human beings are wired to connect to other people, and when we disconnect from humans, and over-connect to electronics, we eventually have “emotional starvation.”

Take breaks from the news

Your brain is built to problem solve. When you are already feeling fearful, it may naturally seek out information in your external environment to reinforce the feeling of fear. The brain can often delete, distort, and generalize all incoming information that does not align with your current emotional state or beliefs. So, if you spend a significant amount of time following the news, it reinforces worry and fear and creates a vicious cycle. To keep fear and panic at bay, try limiting your intake of news to about five to ten minutes per day and set a similar time limit for checking your social media accounts. Give yourself time without any news, tv, or electronics. Give yourself some time and space to think about and focus on other things.

Focus on the facts and keep things in perspective

Looking at the facts about COVID-19 and understanding the actual risk to yourself and loved ones can make the outbreak less stressful. Remind yourself the most important thing you can do to help yourself and your loved ones is to take all the precautions, including washing hands and practicing social distancing, to decrease your risk of contracting the virus. Also, remind yourself that most people who do contract COVID-19 will have mild symptoms and recover. Also keep in mind that precautions are in place for those most vulnerable, such as the elderly or those with underlying health issues.

Connect with others

Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling. Technology can keep you connected with friends, family, and neighbors when you are not able to see them in person. Call friends and family, write a letter or send a card, and think of ways to stay connected.

Get an adequate amount of sleep

Keep a consistent sleep schedule and nightly routine. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends. Sleep gives your mind and body a chance to repair, rest, and be ready for another day. Among numerous benefits, sleep reduced stress, helps with energy, focus and alertness, and keeps your immune system strong.

Make nutrition a priority

Stress can increase cravings for comfort foods that are high in sugar and saturated fats. The instant gratification can be satisfying, but the immediate high and subsequent crash can increase stress, irritability, and anxiety. Choose snacks and meals with foods that are high in protein and potassium, such as beans, bananas, oranges, grapefruit, leafy salad greens and sweet potatoes, which are shown to help calm mood. In addition, choosing healthy foods will help boost your immune system.

Get dressed and get moving

Get up and get dressed (into something other than loungewear) as if you are going to leave the house for the day. This is a simple trick, but effective to improve mood and get you moving. Physical activity helps ease anxiety and improve your mood by producing stress-relieving hormones called endorphins. Research has shown that exercising for as little as ten minutes can boost mood enhancing hormones and happiness.

Keep yourself busy

Engaging in activities that distract you from current events can be helpful. You can watch your favorite movies and TV shows (in moderation), pick up a new hobby like baking, DIY crafts, plant a garden or some flowers, play a game with family, organize and work on projects around the house or yard, join an online fitness class or enroll in a free online university course. Many places are offering free steaming and access, such as the NFL, NBA, and Met Opera. This is a good time to learn or try something new that maybe you have not had time to in the past.

Start those goals or projects

Look at this time as an opportunity where you get to do things you otherwise would not have time to do. Work on goals, home projects, or implement those self-care routines that are usually on the back burner.

Check your thoughts and have an “attitude of gratitude”

What we think and believe leads to how we feel and act. Thinking of negative things and fear leads to us feeling worried and sad, which may lead us to act erratically or isolate. So, try reframing your thoughts to manage your emotions better. For example, instead of “I am stuck at home and can’t go out to a restaurant with my friends”, think, “I am safe at home and now I get a chance to cook a new recipe.” Choose to focus on what you can control such as frequent hand washing, avoiding engaging in social activities, keeping a routine, etc. Focus on what you have and can do, versus what you don’t have and can’t do. In other words, practice gratitude. Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions such as envy or resentment and leads to positive feelings. Research has used MRI scans to measure brain activity and found that there are long term benefits to focusing on positivity and gratitude.

Be there for others 

The “helper” therapy principle refers to the theory that when helpers help a fellow sufferer, they also help themselves. Numerous examples consistently indicate that the helper experiences healing when he or she helps another. Like practicing gratitude, “paying it forward” has been researched and found to promote mental wellbeing. For example, delivering food or medication to the elderly, doing a chore or errand for someone in need, or contributing to a cause are all helpful for the giver and receiver.

Use relaxation techniques if you feel the stress and anxiety are overwhelming.

Deep breathing helps you regulate your emotions by activating the part of your nervous system that helps slow heart rate and restores the feeling of calm.

Make time to unwind

Try to make time for activities and hobbies you enjoy. Engaging in these activities offers an important outlet for pleasure, fun, and creativity.

Talk to your children

It’s important to take care of your kids’ mental and emotional health, especially during this time. Children can also be a vulnerable group because they have less understanding of events and are limited in their ability to understand and communicate what they feel. Catastrophes, like a large-scale epidemic, affects all aspects of a child’s development, including physical, psychological, and social. The loss of healthcare, education, nutrition, recreation, protection, socialization, etc. can take a significant toll on children. You can help by being honest and open and give them time and space to process their feelings, especially feelings of fear and anxiety. Be there to answer questions and reassure them.

One of the most helpful things you can do is to model behavior for your kids. When they see you doing it, they will often take interest and follow your lead. This includes reacting calmly and positively, washing hands, eating healthy meals, exercising or meditating together, limiting social media and news exposure, having a positive and gracious attitude, etc. Additionally, kids thrive with a schedule, so try to maintain a normal routine as much as possible.

Other resources:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline
1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 

Crisis Text Line
Text “HOME” to 741741

National Domestic Violence Hotline