Psychiatrist, Writer, Commentator

Managing Anxiety & Stress during the COVID-19 pandemic

Monday, 30th March 2020

The majority of this article was written by the Centre for Disease Control & Prevention in the USA (CDC). Links and phone numbers have been adapted for Australia, and some information has been changed to adapt to Australian circumstances.

Stress and Coping

The outbreak of COronaVIrus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) will be stressful for most people. Fear and anxiety about the unknown, especially a new disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Coping with stress will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.

Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations.  How you respond to the outbreak can depend on your background, the things that make you different from other people, and the community you live in.

People who may respond more strongly to the stress of a crisis include

  • Older people and people with chronic diseases who are at higher risk for COVID-19
  • Children and teens
  • People who are helping with the response to COVID-19, like doctors and other health care providers, or first responders
  • People who have mental health conditions including problems with substance use

If you, or someone you care about, are feeling overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety, there are lots of options:

Stress during an infectious disease outbreak can include

  • Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
  • New instances or escalation of family violence

People with pre-existing mental health conditions should continue with their treatment and be aware of new or worsening symptoms. Contact your GP or mental health clinician if you have questions.

Existing data indicates that we should expect an increase in family violence due to the pandemic.  Family violence risk factors include confinement in the home, financial uncertainty and unemployment. Contact:  Safe Steps 1800 015 188

Taking care of yourself, your friends, and your family can help you cope with stress. Helping others cope with their stress can also make your community stronger.

Things you can do to support yourself

  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
  • Take care of your body. Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
  • Learn the skills of relaxation. Try downloading a meditation app (like Smiling Mind), try online yoga through YouTube. Google slow breathing exercise.
  • Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.

Call your healthcare provider if stress gets in the way of your daily activities for several days in a row.

For further information from Beyondblue

Reduce stress in yourself and others

Sharing the facts about COVID-19 and understanding the actual risk to yourself and people you care about can make an outbreak less stressful. Check out these basic facts about COVID.

When you share accurate information about COVID-19 you can help make people feel less stressed and allow you to connect with them.

For parents

Children and teens react, in part, on what they see from the adults around them. When parents and caregivers deal with the COVID-19 calmly and confidently, they can provide the best support for their children. Parents can be more reassuring to others around them, especially children, if they are better prepared.

Not all children and teens respond to stress in the same way. Some common changes to watch for include

  • Excessive crying or irritation in younger children
  • Returning to behaviours they have outgrown (for example, toileting accidents or bedwetting)
  • Excessive worry or sadness
  • Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
  • Irritability and “acting out” behaviours in teens
  • Poor school performance or avoiding school
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration
  • Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
  • Unexplained headaches or body pain
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

There are many things you can do to support your child

  • Take time to talk with your child or teen about the COVID-19 outbreak. Answer questions about COVID-19 in a way that your child or teen can understand.
  • Reassure your child or teen that they are safe. Let them know it is ok if they feel upset. Share with them how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn how to cope from you.
  • Limit your family’s exposure to news coverage of the event, including social media. Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand.
  • Try to keep up with regular routines. If schools are closed, create a schedule for learning activities and relaxing or fun activities.
  • Be a role model.  Take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and eat well. Connect with your friends and family members.

Learn more about talking to kids about COVID-19 from the Royal Children's Hospital

For responders

Responding to COVID-19 can take an emotional toll on you. There are things you can do to reduce secondary traumatic stress (STS) reactions:

  • Acknowledge that STS can impact anyone helping families after a traumatic event.
  • Learn the symptoms including physical (fatigue, illness) and mental (fear, withdrawal, guilt).
  • Allow time for you and your family to recover from responding to the pandemic.
  • Create a menu of personal self-care activities that you enjoy, such as spending time with friends and family, exercising, or reading a book.
  • Take a break from media coverage of COVID-19.
  • Ask for help if you feel overwhelmed or concerned that COVID-19 is affecting your ability to care for your family and patients as you did before the outbreak.

Learn more tips for taking care of yourself during emergency response (note, this is a US site, & whilst the support advice is excellent, the phone numbers are not relevant for Australians. When we have an Australian equivalent, we will update this information).

For people who have been released from quarantine & self-isolation

Being separated from others if a healthcare provider thinks you may have been exposed to COVID-19 can be stressful, even if you do not get sick. Everyone feels differently after coming out of quarantine. Some feelings include:

  • Mixed emotions, including relief after quarantine
  • Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones
  • Stress from the experience of monitoring yourself or being monitored by others for signs and symptoms of COVID-19
  • Sadness, anger, or frustration because friends or loved ones have unfounded fears of contracting the disease from contact with you, even though you have been determined not to be contagious
  • Guilt about not being able to perform normal work or parenting duties during quarantine
  • Other emotional or mental health changes

Tips to deal with the stress of self-isolation

Self-isolation heightens loneliness and can cause stress, fear, and worry.

Here are some quick tips to cope:

  • Use social media & the telephone to connect with loved ones – start a small group and touch base each day – think about groups for family, friends and close neighbours.
  • Use the time wisely – do things you love. Take an online class, read that pile of books on your bedside table, watch all of those TV shows you missed. Repaint the bathroom!
  • Stay healthy – eat well, exercise, sleep well. All can be done in your home. Take the time to cook, do online yoga or aerobics, meditate, and focus on good sleep habits.
  • Dodge the panic – there are thousands of armchair experts spreading doom and gloom right now. Try to limit your media and online exposure. Listen to the advice from true experts via the government and universities, and not all day long. Take a break.
  • Online help – if you are finding you are struggling, ring one of our many helplines, or search ‘online psychologists’ – many doctors, psychologist and psychiatrists work online (called telehealth) and lots of it is covered by Medicare.

If you feel at any point that your emotional well-being is a risk, remember:

Or any of the national helplines – all available here