5 ways to curb coronavirus-related stress and anxiety

Madelyn Fernstrom, NBC News’ health editor, says it’s important to not just focus on your physical health during this challenging time, but your mental health as well.
NBC News health editor Madelyn Fernstrom discusses mental health awareness with Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.
NBC News health editor Madelyn Fernstrom discusses mental health awareness with Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.Miller Hawkins

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By Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD

As the U.S. ramps up its fight against coronavirus, it’s fair to say that our lives have changed dramatically in a very short amount of time. Change, especially when it involves social distancing, is hard for everyone, and it’s often very stressful. A certain amount of anxiety is normal, but how do you avoid spinning completely out of control?

Here are five ways to help manage the unique stress of the coronavirus outbreak.

1. Accept the “new normal”

While it’s very normal to feel anxious and stressed about the uncertainty of this pandemic, recognize that this is a universal worry, and we are all in this together. Life now has changed, temporarily, and everyone must adjust the new rules of daily living.

Accepting that social distancing is necessary to protect us is an impactful way to reduce stress. Tell yourself, even aloud, that “this is not forever.” Our normal way of life will return, and we need to feel empowered by what we are able to do.

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2. Focus on positive control.

Make a list of the things that are under your control, like taking recommended health precautions (frequent hand-washing, sneezing/coughing into our elbow or tissue, respecting the six-foot distance rule, etc.) and work on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. A focus on healthy eating, daily activity and a good night’s sleep are all double-duty positives that both support a healthy immune system and reduce stress.

3. Remember, it’s social isolation, not elimination

Staying connected with family and friends is key to stress reduction. Isolation and loneliness are big stress promoters that have solutions. Virtual contact – think FaceTime for one-on-one chats, or other group activities with a dial-in connection – is the solution in this digital age. And reach out to others you might have been thinking about, to say hello and reconnect.

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4. Change your response to stress

While you can’t change a stressor like this one because it’s out of your control, you can change your response to stress. Your body’s response to stress is physical (stress hormones are released), and can create a negative health response, including an elevation of blood pressure, poor concentration, interrupted sleep habits and more.

When you sense your stress creeping up (and it’s normal to come and go), pick a go-to activity that helps distract and relax you. It might be exercise, a walk, calling a friend, cleaning out a closet, or deep breathing. Pick one or two activities that work for you.

5. Create structure to your day

Maintaining a daily schedule will go a long way to reducing stress. And if you have children at home, it’s doubly important. Set a daily wake-up time, and specific times for work/school, meals, exercise, household chores and leisure. And establish a regular bed-time. A consistent routine will go a long way to keeping your stress at bay.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is the NBC News’ health editor. Follow her on twitter @drfernstrom.