9 Ways to Cope and Manage Stress: How to Improve Your Mental Health During COVID-19 and Thrive in Your Health Goals

Improve your mental health with tips from medical experts on how to cope and manage stress so you not only survive, but thrive!

12.1 min read
Learn to Cope and Manage Stress From COVID-19

Mental Health and COVID-19

It’s a normal reaction to feel anxious when things are uncertain. “Fear is a normal thing – our brain wants to protect us, but we can manage it,” explains Dr. Coral Avron, Director of Behavioral Health and Wellness at the Pritikin Center. Dr. Avron has garnered national acclaim for her expertise in overcoming challenges, like anxiety and chronic stress.

For many of us, the COVID-19 illness has made the future uncertain, stirring up worries about finances, careers, school, and social events. For some there’s also concerns about your health, and of loved ones. It is okay to feel more anxious than usual. You’re doing the best you can. Take time for yourself. “We’ve been working so hard, moving so fast, avoiding self-care, eating and drinking too much,” says Dr. Coral Avron. She sees a silver lining in the way our busy lifestyles have decelerated in an attempt to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. “Now, we have time to take care of ourselves, and each other …to focus on our habits – it takes time to change habits.” Take time while you have it, to start making small changes to your routines, and create new, healthy habits you can carry into your lifestyle when things get back to normal. “It’ll all be fine, and all of this chaos is really helping us see what’s important,” points out Dr. Avron.

Why Do I Feel Anxious about COVID-19?

Feeling stressed and fearful everyday can take a toll on your health and well-being quickly. Panic can build, leading to cause some to stock pile supplies or seek medical attention when it’s not needed. Panic is unhelpful. Alternatively, stress can cause denial in the seriousness of the situation. Denial for some helps them avoid anxiety but, it’s can be obstructive. Denial can cause you to ignore recommendations by health authorities. The best place is somewhere between panic and denial. This illness is serious and we should be concerned about it, but it is not catastrophic. We will get through this, together!

9 Ways to Cope and Manage Stress for Better Mental Health During COVID-19

Are you carrying guilt about words, inactions, choices in eating behaviour, exercise, or relationships, in these uncertain times? Allow yourself a moment of compassion. It’s okay to feel anxious, stressed, angry, or depressed. These are uncertain times. But, you can manage it!

Here are some helpful ways to cope and manage stress so you can improve your mental health. (Even expert psychiatrists use these tips.) Not only can you cope, you can thrive. Be the best version of you!

#1 | Rule with Routine

Turn off the lights at night and wake at a reasonable time. Practice self-care, exercise daily, eat regular meals and snacks. Embracing a routine can positively impact your mental health. With a routine, you know what to expect. That makes it easier to work towards counteracting negative thoughts. Plus, better sleep and mood come with a schedule, according to the Lancet Psychiatry – a schedule that includes an active daytime routine, instead of late nights. As for children, routines make them feel safer. Making family routines is a helpful way to cope and manage stress.

#2 | Play Dress Up

It’s amazing how what you wear can impact your mood. Try it! Put on some bright colours and feel your mood lift. Wearing yellow could inspire feelings of happiness and optimism. Green is linked with feelings of hope. While, orange is a colour associated with energy, fun, and warmth. Keep it comfortable if you’re staying home.

#3 | Get Outside

The healthiest thing you can do is go outside and move. If you are worried about contact, head outside early in the morning when there are few people out – it’s very peaceful. In fact, nature therapy, also known as forest bathing, has been shown in 64 research studies to reduce stress. The practice of forest bathing is a traditional Japanese practice of immersing oneself in nature by mindfully using all five senses. Either walking in trees, or simply being near them while being mindful, may help. Walking in a forest benefits one’s mood and mental state, says studies, versus walking on a treeless city street. Nature truly is the ultimate stress buster!

#4 | Exercise

For many, this stressful, anxiety-filled time can drive you to hide on the couch, stay up late binging on yet another Netflix series, and crave cookies or other comfort foods. Find time to move each day and you’ll be thankful you did. Exercise causes the release of chemicals in the body that boost mood. You don’t have to sign up for a marathon. Grab your calendar. Get your red pen ready to make check marks, and start moving! Exercise is an excellent mood booster.

Information Overload Can Lead to Stress
If you are feeling hopeless, take action. Look to trusted organizations such as the World Health Organization or the Center for Disease Control for information. Avoid information overload – turn off the news, or social media if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Take positive and protective actions, such as practicing good hygiene, stay home as much as possible, and isolate if you feel sick.

Do you have a goal? Most goals are vague, such as “I want to lose weight”. But, to actually achieve your goal, “you have to focus on the 1% changes that go between where you are and your final goal,” explains Dr. Avron. You can make successful habit changes if you focus on tiny things. “Reduce it to the ridiculous,” describes Dr. Avron. If your goal is to floss your teeth daily, start with the commitment to floss one tooth a day. If your goal is to exercise each day, reduce it to a commitment to ride your stationary bike each day for 2 minutes. It may seem ridiculous to floss only one tooth but, once you start you’ll likely floss at least a few teeth. “I have a two-month calendar, and every day I get on my stationary bike, even if just for 2 minutes, I put a big red check mark on that day. After 60 days, it’s become a habit to get on that bike,” exclaims Dr. Avron. “With all of the free time we have now, we can work on changing your habits, one small, red check mark at a time.”

There are lots of ways to work out without a gym. Fitness expert, Jamie Costello, Director of Sales and Fitness at the Pritikin Center, has uploaded videos to help you stay home and be fit. Plus, there’s lots of research-backed articles, including information on what’s the best workout for weight loss. Jamie adds that on the internet “there are dance videos that are lots of fun, and others for cardio or choreographed routines… weight bearing and low impact videos are best. You can also do your own thing!” Need a bit of motivation to get you exercising? Exercising keeps you healthy! Regular exercise makes you less likely to get a cold, reported the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

#5 | Eat Well

As for those cravings rallied by stress, anxiety, or depression in uncertain times, tell your inner cookie monster that you have to eat an apple (or other fruit first). Then, if after that, you still want the cookie, you can have it. Healthy eating is not about will power. “Will power doesn’t work. You have to analyze your emotions. If you ignore them, they won’t go away. You can try to ignore the cupcake, but the more you try, the more you want it,” says Dr. Avron. Eating to comfort yourself is not uncommon, but by avoiding emotional eating triggers, rewiring your brain with healthier habits, and taking the guilt out of the equation, you can not only cope with this stressful situation, but take this pause in your busy lifestyle as an opportunity to thrive by building healthier habits.

#6 | Give Space

In times of stress, people can have moments when they are not at their best. Be kind to yourself. As for others, give space, compassion, and try not to hold grudges. Everyone is doing the best they can to cope and manage stress. “Extend kindness to others around you, particularly those struggling to communicate their stress and sense of worry,” advises Psychologist Dr. Eileen Feliciano, based in New York. Remember that children can also be affected by stress, sometimes needing additional attention, hugs, or reassurance.

#7 | Make a Self-Care Tool Kit

Self-care can be the embrace of a soft blanket, the beat of a good tune, or the fragrance streaming up from a warm mug cradled between your fingers. Self-care strategies are unique to each person, but usually involve sensory components such as touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell, or movement, explains Dr. Feliciano. There are many self-care ways to cope and manage stress: hot baths, facials, hugs, foot rubs, or meditation. Swinging on a rocking chair, a weighted blanket, a coloring book, blowing bubbles, or writing in a journal are all forms of self-care. Consider putting many of these soothing favorites in one spot to create a retreat space. Having a place that feels safe and relaxing can help sooth emotions. Kids make forts: cozy, small spaces filled with soothing treasures that bring joy. Why not build your own?

#8 | Say it Out loud

Don’t let working from home or social distancing make you feel isolated – that can make one feel depressed. Normally, in stressful times we grab a hold of each other, releasing oxytocin hormones. Yet, with COVID-19 we need find ways to make connections with others that are non-physical. A great way to cope and manage stress is to create a circle of social support. Your circle may be smaller than usual, but it can be stronger. Call a friend. Chat with the neighbor on their porch from the sidewalk. Write a letter to a family member. Use technology applications to video chat with others. Join online meetings – there are lots that support overeaters, or alcoholics. Empathy is so powerful.

#9 | Feel Good

When we’re not inside our heads, stress is easier to manage. There’s something magical about giving to others. You can simply ask someone, “how are you doing?” Or, offer to get groceries for a neighbor in need. It feels good to love and care for each other. Even when the world seems out of sorts, it’s okay to feel good. And, it feels good to care for yourself.

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