Seven tips for managing stress during the pandemic

Our mental health is taking a beating. Here are several ways to regain control and feel better.
A man clutches his head behind a computer
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Pandemics can be stressful, and learning to cope is crucial for survival.

If you’ve ever found yourself sitting at home, scrolling through Twitter or watching the 6 p.m. news with a sinking feeling that you’re living through the end of the world, you’re not alone. The pandemic is taking a toll on our mental health. This toll is exacted in the form of bad moods, difficulty concentrating and feeling burnt out.

Fortunately, there are a few easy steps to stay sane (or as sane as possible) in these troubling times.

Regular exercise, sleep and staying connected with family and friends, offer protection from stress and anxiety. Getting back to workplaces and school may give us a sense that things are returning to normal, but those places have been altered by the pandemic. Instead, everything from shopping to eating out feels eerie from behind a mask. 

Recognizing what has changed may help us understand why we need to focus on mental health, and why we’re not alone in feeling higher stress levels, says Shilagh Mirgain, a distinguished psychologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. 

Mirgain says stress and anxiety during the pandemic is all too common. A third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression, according to a new Census Bureau survey, and with the pandemic causing an economic slow-down, layoffs, an increasing number of coronavirus cases in Wisconsin and schooling moving online, stress has become the new normal. 

“We are really finding an increase in mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic,” Mirgain says. It’s really important to recognize that these are challenging times [that] try our mental health, and to work on coping strategies to really strengthen overall wellbeing and foster resilience.” 

But stress and anxiety don’t have to be a daily expectation. Basic stress management  like spending time in nature and practicing mindfulness meditation  can help you cope when the world as we knew it is nowhere to be found.

Spending time in nature 

Nature is always available to us, says Mirgain, and the solace of the great outdoors can be just the place to take a break from the seemingly constant stream of bad news. As few as 10 minutes of walking outside can help boost your mood and relieve mental fatigue, says MirgainWith plenty of stunning hiking trails in the Madison area, nature presents an easy way to escape and destress. 

As the cold winter months approach, Mirgain recommends having a plan to keep active and in touch with family members. Wisconsinites are used to the cold, so sledding, making snowmen, cross-country skiing and winter hiking are all options for outdoor adventure.

Mindful Meditation 

Want to stop the negative thoughts racing through your brain, if only for a few minutes? Mirgain, who has both prescribed and practiced mindful mediation herself, recommends a couple different strategiesMindfulness is meant to help keep a person in the moment  rather than in their own head, ruminating on all the possible things that can go wrong.

Start, Mirgain says, by naming out loud five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. Or take five deep breaths while counting. “That act of just pausing can help you get out of an autopilot way of reaction and into a more intentional way of responding, she says. 

Spending time with family and friends 

Social support — which we can get by spending time with friends and family — also helps protect you from mental health issues. While maintaining connections can be difficult in an ever more virtual world, Mirgain says one of her patients had a great idea to stay connected: creating a fall bucket list. The patient got friends and family doing things on the list, taking pictures of themselves doing those things and sharing the photos online.

Bucket list activities and virtual get-togethers give people something to look forward to, and having things to work towards is a way to stay positive, says Mirgain. While Halloween and Thanksgiving might look a different this year, planning safe ways to connect with those closest to you can make the future look a little less bleak.

We may be in for some tough times for the next few months, but we’ll get through this. We’ll be stronger and stay resilient if we continue to support one another in our community, Mirgain says. 

Reducing ‘doom scrolling’

Scrolling through your Twitter feed right now probably includes news about the coronavirus, wildfires in California, the president’s taxes, the coronavirus, storms, the upcoming election and, yet again, the coronavirus. “Doom scrolling” — or “doom surfing,” as Mirgain calls it — is obsessively scrolling through article after article of bad news online, adding stress to your daily routine.

It can be easy to recognize this nasty habit, but harder to stop, as social media is designed to keep you plugged in. Mirgain says being mindful of what media you are consuming, how much and when, is key to not overburdening your mental health.

Regular exercise 

“There is a mind-body connection,” says Mirgain. “As we care for our body it actually helps strengthen the mind.”

Exercise is a useful and natural way to alleviate depressionlower stress and boost overall wellbeing, says Mirgain. It’s important to prioritize exercising, particularly as the winter months approach, to help prevent poor mental health. Regular exercise, like 30 minutes of walking five days a week, is a great way to lower mild to moderate forms of depression. 

Sleeping well 

“Sleep is one of the best things you can do for physical health, your overall well-being and [to keep] that immune system strong — something we all want to prioritize during COVID-19,” Mirgain says. “If you’re sleep deprived, everything else starts to go haywire.” 

Going haywire might mean more poor decision making from day to day. Sleeping well can help people make the right decisions — like deciding to eat right and exercise — and helps a person maintain a more stable mood, says Mirgain

So once you’ve survived another day of Zoom meetings, remember to get under the covers early without social media or another Netflix original to deprive you of a good night’s sleep.

Getting help 

While all of these strategies are great, it’s not enough for everyone. Mirgain recommends people reach out for additional support or seek counseling, especially for those struggling with depression and isolation

All of the above strategies can fight the feeling that the world is ending. Coping with stress, instead of letting it build up inside you like a shaken up can of soda, is crucial at times such as these. The consequences — which include difficulty concentrating or doing simple tasks — can be debilitating. So start by acknowledging that the world isn’t normal and that pretending that it is might do you more harm than good. And go from there.

Celia Young is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.