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Researcher Offers Guide to Coping with COVID-related Stress, Part II

June 10, 2020
It can be helpful to take breaks and focus on being quiet and calm.

Professor Matthew Zawadzki is with the Department of Psychological Sciences in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts. His research examines social psychological processes as applied to health. This is the second of two parts.

These are unusual times. In the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 110,000 Americans, cities across the country are gripped by nightly protests.  People are still working remotely or unable to work although states are beginning to "reopen;" campuses are closed and students of all ages are taking part in online or home schooling; people are separated from friends and other family; and people are unable to do many of their usual activities. Let’s talk about the stress of the current situation.

1. Many people used their commute time to and from work to gear up for the day and wind down from work — is there something people can do to replace that time?

We often just think of our commutes as a hassle, but it also had these hidden benefits — our commutes became more than just getting from home to work and back. For many that was personal time, whether to listen to music or a podcast, make a phone call with a friend or family member, or just a few moments where you did not have to be “on” besides the normal energy needed for the commute. For those of us now without a daily commute, it could be tempting to just assume that no commute leaves more time in the day for work or for household chores. This way of thinking ignores the self-care we did in these moments, and now allows stress to remain and build up over time. Protect this time and continue the activities that made the commute bearable, even if you are doing them at home.

2. Many people are home with family members all day and all night — something none of them are used to, as school and work usually limit that togetherness. Is that stressful?

It can be. It’s interesting how a lot of research points to social connections as a critical buffer to stress and for maintaining and promoting a healthy life. But this research usually examines situations in which we do not have enough social support and looks at what happens when we get more support in those moments. Right now, in contrast, we might have a surplus of social connections — there are lots of people around us in the home, and our physically disconnected friends and families are trying to connect more than ever. This amount of social connection might be beyond what we need in a particular moment. Rather than being a resource, it could actually create stress. Coping with stress by going for a 30-minute bike ride may be perfect but going for a 30-mile trip when we are not prepared for it will cause all kinds of problems. Over-exercising our social muscles can have negative consequences too.

3. If so, how can people counteract that?

As mentioned above, a first step is really understanding our needs and sharing them with the people we are spending our days with. We are so often in a mode where we compare ourselves to others or imagine how we should act. But there is no one way to act that will make everyone happy. In fact, what works for you today may not even be what works for you tomorrow. We need to be kind to ourselves and recognize that we sometimes need alone time rather than more time with our spouse or romantic partner, or that we sometimes need a break from our kids and family. Allowing ourselves the freedom to take these breaks when they are needed, and letting other people take them as well, lets us all clear our heads and reset our moods. When we do this, we come back to the table ready to be supportive and engaged.

4. When someone is home alone, with no family or friends, is there a different kind of stress?

This is a hard question. We might immediately assume that but we can feel lonely in all kinds of situations — loneliness is driven more by our perceptions of what we need from others socially compared with what kinds of support we are actually getting. If I am around my family and friends all the time but not making in-depth connections, I might feel like I do not have a person in the world I can turn to. With that said, many of us who are home alone now are not there by choice. This situation is a prime driver of loneliness that can have unique and powerful consequences. Some of them involve creating and recreating stress in our minds, such as ruminating about a past argument with a friend or worrying about something in the future. Engaging in a lot of these mental stressors can lead to depressive symptoms and disrupted sleep, among other negative health outcomes. Unfortunately, loneliness, rumination, depression and poor sleep all work together to create a vicious cycle. When I sleep poorly or am in a negative mood, it’s harder to connect with others and increases feelings of loneliness. That loneliness puts negative thoughts in my mind that make it harder to sleep, and the cycle continues.

5. Do children also feel the stress of the current situation?

Children often have much less control over their daily lives than most adults, especially when they are younger, and so they look for routine. With school being canceled or limited due to COVID-19, daily routines are disrupted. The canceled classes mean less engagement with friends and extracurricular activities, no homework and other tasks to do after school, less access to trusted teachers and staff, and maybe even less consistent access to meals throughout the day. Things look different, and this change — without an understanding of when it will end and why it is happening – can be very stressful to children (to all of us really). We also have to remember that children are incredibly perceptive. The stress and anxiety we may be carrying around with us is not necessarily hidden to children as much as we might hope it is, and thus affects them.

6. How can parents know if their children are stressed?

It can be hard to see this stress sometimes. Kids can hide telltale behaviors quite well for all sorts of reasons. The main thing to look out for is whether there are changes in behaviors and/or personality. Is my child acting out or having strong mood swings more than usual? Are they being set off by even minor things? Sometimes younger children might regress in their developmental milestones and begin sucking their thumbs or wetting their beds for the first time in years. Stressed children may also report physical ailments such as a stomachache, or they can have trouble sleeping due to nightmares.

7. What can people do for or with their children to help relieve everyone’s stress?

Getting that routine back for children is an important first step. That routine begins with basic needs around eating and sleeping. Establishing a regular bedtime each night and making sure your child gets up around the same time each morning will help ensure they are getting enough sleep (or for you to detect faster when their sleep is being disrupted by nightmares or other problems). Similarly having set mealtimes each day will help create order to the day. Beyond that, talking with children about what is going on — in developmentally appropriate ways — lets your child know they can share their problems and that you are around to support them. This kind of guide might be helpful .