Stress and Coping: How to Maintain Healthy Habits During COVID-19

Mrs. Heather Thiry, Health and Wellness Coordinator, AmeriCorps Member & Calumet County Public Health

As everyone moves along through May, which also happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month, the whole world is continuing to navigate uncharted COVID-19 waters. Different routines have been established in our lives to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the community. New schedules and habits have also formed in response to spending more time in your home environment, which can impact your mental health over time.

A question to ask yourself is this: Are your current sleep, nutrition, physical activity and screen-time habits supporting your mental health in a positive way? Perhaps a few adjustments are needed to ensure your mental health is a top priority. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (WI-DHS) provides guidance that can help us understand the impact an outbreak like COVID-19 can have on daily life and offers healthy coping strategies and resources that can positively impact mental health outcomes and build stronger communities.

Healthy Coping

The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily changed the way we work and live, go to school and spend time together. Limiting close contact with each other protects everyone’s health, including those who are most vulnerable. It also helps ensure vital health care resources remain available for those who need them. But knowing these changes in our day-to-day activities are important doesn’t make coping with them easy. As we all adapt to recent events, it’s natural to feel stress, worry and even anger.

That’s why learning how to deal with difficulties in healthy ways and to bounce back from hardship is key. The Resilient Wisconsin program provides practical tools and sources of support that can help you strengthen your resilience during times of stress, so you can take care of yourself and those around you during COVID-19 and beyond.

Recognizing the Signs of Stress and Anxiety

Strong emotions — and even physical reactions — are a natural response to traumatic events such as a natural disaster or pandemic. There’s no right or wrong way to feel or act, and your reactions may change over time. That’s why it’s important to understand your responses during stressful events — so that you can better manage what you’re feeling and recognize when you may need the support of a mental health or medical professional.

  • Stress takes many forms. Look for these common reactions to traumatic events now and as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves: Mood swings and intense feelings, including fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones, sadness, anger, guilt and disorientation
  • Denial, detachment or avoidance
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Irritability, strained relationships and conflicts with family, friends and co-workers
  • Changes in your normal sleep or eating patterns
  • Soreness, nausea, head or stomach aches
  • Elevated breathing, heartbeat and blood pressure
  • Sensitivity to unusual sounds, smells and changes in your environment
  • A worsening of preexisting chronic or mental health conditions
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs

Research shows that people are resilient. With time and support, we’re able to recover from adversity. It’s OK to ask for help. Remember the challenges you’ve overcome in the past; it’s good to remind yourself of your own ability to bounce back. Just remember that recovery is a process. Give yourself time to adjust now and after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

Learning to Manage Stress and Adapt to Change

Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. But taking care of yourself, your friends and your family can help you cope with the changes you’re experiencing. People who have the skills to adapt and bounce back from hardships strengthen the people around them and help make their community more resilient, too.

Caring for yourself is important. You’re not being selfish. You’re showing self-interest. Taking the time to protect your own physical and mental health ensures you have the resources to take care of others:

  • Get the three “goods” — That’s good-for-you foods, a good night’s sleep and a good amount of exercise.
  • Relax your body — Do what works for you, such as taking deep breaths, stretching and exercising, meditation and spiritual activities.
  • Do something you enjoy — Eat a good meal, read a book, create a playlist of your favorite music, interact with friends virtually, play video games online, get outside and enjoy the outdoors, keep a journal, play an instrument, paint or create art projects or talk to family and friends.
  • Set boundaries — Don’t let the pandemic take over what you read, watch or talk about. And don’t be afraid to ask friends and family to talk about something else.
  • Avoid negative outlets — Find healthy ways to process your emotions. Avoid self-medicating with alcohol, drugs or other harmful or risky behaviors.

Staying connected with friends and family is good for mental health. Trusted, supportive relationships keep us grounded during uncertainty. Whether you send a postcard or a text, you don’t have to be physically close to stay connected.

  • Tap into technology — Reach out to family and friends, teachers and support groups in whatever way you can: call, email, text, video chat, etc.
  • Use social media wisely — Connect with the world outside via social media, but don’t overload on COVID-19 posts, and make sure the sources you follow are credible.
  • Do remote doctor visits — Many health care providers offer remote care. Ask your primary physician if you can schedule appointments over Skype, FaceTime, or email.
  • Have lunch long-distance — Keep standing social appointments in your life. If you have lunch with a friend or family member every week, use technology to keep it up.
  • Join an online community — Now is the time to make new friends and connect with people who share your hobbies and interests.

Reducing stress and anxiety can help you regain control during uncertain times and situations. Take the time to discover which coping skills work for you, and practice them every day.

  • Reduce your risk — Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. Stay at least six feet apart and wear a cloth face covering while running essential errands outside the home. Knowing you’re doing everything you can to stay healthy can help you worry less.
  • Establish a routine — Staying balanced is easier when you build periods of activity and rest into your daily schedule.
  • Talk it out — Try talking about your experiences and feelings with loved ones, a trusted advisor, or a support group or mental health professional. It can help.
  • Avoid big decisions when possible — Important decisions are usually stressful in their own right and can be even harder when you’re dealing with a trauma.
  • Monitor your reactions — Check in with your body and emotions. Know the signs of toxic stress and reach out for help if you feel like you can’t cope.

Helplines & Hotlines for Help

If you are having an emergency, call 911.

For questions or immediate needs on COVID-19, you can:

  • Text COVID19 to 211-211
  • Visit www.211Wisconsin.org
  • Call 211
  • Contact the National Disaster Distress Helpline and to speak to a trained counselor, call 800-985-5990 / 800-846-8517 (TTY)
  • Contact the HOPELINE Text Service and to connect with someone who cares, text HOPELINE to 741741
  • If you are looking for local resources and updates about COVID-19, please refer to the Calumet County government website: www.co.calumet.wi.us or call Calumet County Public Health at 920-849-1432.

For youth and young adults experiencing mental health challenges, you can:

  • Contact TEEN LINE for support, text TEEN to 839863
  • Contact “Your Life, Your Voice” and to connect with a counselor, call 800-448-3000 or text VOICE to 20121

References: Wisconsin Department of Health Services ǀ COVID-19: Resilient Wisconsin