We’re living in unprecedented times. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a variety of health-related, financial and emotional hardships to individuals across the country. For many people, this has resulted in a significant increase in stress and anxiety. When not managed properly, this stress can prove to be crippling in a time when life is already very challenging.

During a free online lecture, Martha Hawkinson with Mental Health Partners shared some data from a recent study indicating that more than 45 percent of people have experienced negative impacts resulting from stress related to the shelter-in-place order:

  • 21 percent of people are experiencing a major negative impact.
  • 27 percent of people are experiencing a minor negative impact.

“Because stakes are high in terms of the way COVID-19 is impacting the mental health of individuals in the United States, we need proactive, impactful and implementable ways to combat these statistics,” Hawkinson said.

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VIDEO: Watch Martha Hawkinson's lecture on Maintaining Emotional Health During COVID-19
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Living Through the Pandemic: A Traumatic Event
We all experience varying levels and types of stress in our daily lives. This was true even before the pandemic. Hawkinson explained that, “Because of this pandemic, our stress can feel quite cumulative, and very much adding and stacking on top of each other.”

According to her, the layered stress associated with the health pandemic contains the following elements:

  • Personal stress by feeling disconnected and isolated, as well as by a fear of getting sick during the pandemic.
  • Financial stress from loss of income due to reduced hours or being laid off from your job.
  • Familial stress by having to balance learning how to work at home with caring for your children 24 hours a day, assisting with their educational needs and household responsibilities.
  • Cultural stress is fueled by concern over the changes occurring in your local community: Will my favorite restaurants survive the pandemic? Will I be able to return to my gym? Will my community bounce back from all of the financial hardships created by the pandemic?
  • Cumulative stress encompasses all of the above as well as our media consumption experiences, which can greatly add to our levels of stress and anxiety.

Hawkinson stated that when combined, these stressors can make living through the time of a pandemic a traumatic event. “If you carry a perceived or real threat that this pandemic has over our personal safety, health and lives, it very much can be considered a traumatic event,” said Hawkinson.

Common Responses to a Traumatic Event
There are several common responses that people exhibit both during and after experiencing a traumatic event:

  • Anxiety
  • Hypervigilance (a state of increased alertness accompanied by behavior that aims to prevent danger)
  • Irritability
  • Changes in sleeping/eating patterns
  • Forgetfulness
  • Feeling out of sorts
  • Sadness

Hawkinson stressed that it’s important for you to recognize that they are common trauma responses. “Having these responses to the pandemic does not mean that you lack coping skills or resilience. Instead, it is an opportunity to reflect on the ability to utilize your resilience and hone your coping skills,” she stated.

Coping During the Pandemic
During a pandemic, perceptions of control become important. Hawkinson discusses a concept called locus of control. Your locus of control is largely based on your personality. There are essentially two different categories:

  • External locus of control feels as if things are happening to you, and you don’t have control of what is happening
  • Internal locus of control is the belief that you have control over what is happening to you

Hawkinson explained that times of uncertainty, such as during a pandemic, can enhance the sense of an external locus of control. Often, this can feel disempowering. She stated that it’s important to focus on what we’re able to control and to hone our ability to control these factors, which includes:

  • Having a positive attitude.
  • Following CDC health recommendations.
  • Maintaining social distancing practices in your daily life.
  • Turning off the news before it increases your level of stress and anxiety.
  • Limiting your social media consumption.
  • Acting with kindness and grace.
  • Finding fun activities to do while you are at home during quarantine.

Focusing your energy on these items instead of factors that are out of your control will help you regain a sense of empowerment.

Coping Practices to Regain Control During the Pandemic
Hawkinson shared some coping practices that you can incorporate into your life to help regain some of the control and empowerment that you may feel has slipped away during the pandemic. These include:

  • Gratitude practice – Starting out your day with a reflection of thankfulness can set a good mood and tone for the rest of your day. It can also help you stay aware of the good things that are happening in your life during the pandemic.
  • Routine and productivity – The pandemic has disrupted most people’s daily routines, and made it harder to remain productive. Setting a routine is important. Stick to it as much as you can, allowing yourself flexibility to adjust as needed based on things that come up during your day. This will also help you stay productive, even if your productivity level doesn’t remain consistent with pre-pandemic levels.
  • Breaks and downtime – Breaks are a way to help be more productive. Active breaks continue to stimulate your brain. Inactive breaks are important as well, and using breathing practices is a great way to make the most of these breaks.
  • Movement – Times of high stress and anxiety can negatively impact your motivation to be active. Brief physical exertion can boost energy to your brain, which can lower your emotional stress levels.
  • Connection – Social distancing can make you feel more disconnected to the people in your lives. Look for ways to stay connected to friends and family. A good way to do this is to share the activities you’re engaging in virtually with friends that also enjoy this activity.

You don’t necessarily need to engage in all of these coping practices. Hawkinson encourages you to adopt the ones that resonate with you and leave the rest alone.

Click here to view a PDF of lecture slides from Hawkinson’s lecture on "Maintaining Emotional Health During COVID-19."

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