A Simple, Smart Guide to Coping with Covid Stress

There’s a meme going around social media that captures how many of us may feel about facing another year with Covid. It’s an image of the Joker from Batman conversing animatedly with the creepy clown from the Stephen King thriller “It.” The caption reads: “2021 showing 2022 around the workplace.” 

As we meet the New Year in the midst of surging cases and uncertainties around Omicron, the sobering message that things might actually get worse before they get better resonates forebodingly (even if cushioned by humor). What next? How much longer? How do we keep going? 

The New Year is traditionally a time to assess and take stock of how we’re doing, maybe even resolve to make changes. But instead of the ubiquitous, aspirational New Year’s resolutions that everyone seems to make and break within a few weeks, what if we took an honest assessment of how we’re coping during the biggest collective trauma of our lives? How are you doing? What are you doing to take care of yourself in the midst of an ongoing global health crisis? How can we all help each other through this?

Why You Need to Prioritize Self-Care 

Covid has taken stress to a whole new level for many of us. Our usual activities have become risky or outright inaccessible. At the same time, our usual support networks may also be less available. The people we normally turn to for support may be overburdened themselves. These added stressors of life in a surging pandemic are layered onto whatever other challenges we may be facing, whether it’s financial hardship, job worries, or relationship difficulties. The perennial background fog of chronic Covid stress is thus punctuated by the sharp jabs of day-to-day acute stress. It’s enough to make you depressed. Or anxious. Or both. 

And indeed, many of us are. Rates of depression and anxiety have increased sharply. Deaths by suicide are rising. Record numbers of youth are in mental health crisis…the list goes on. Simply put, life during Covid can be hard. And apparently, Covid isn’t going away anytime soon. 

All of that makes it more important than ever to find healthy ways to cope with stress, to nurture our physical and emotional well-being, and to build resilience for the long haul before us. Take a hard look at how you’re dealing with it all and ask yourself what you would like to adjust. What do you need?

What Do We Mean By Self-Care?

Self-care means different things to different people. Cultural traditions and ingrained beliefs factor into these differences. Scientific and psychological definitions can also vary. In the context we’re using the term, self-care encompasses the things we do to take care of our mental and physical health. This is in line with the National Institute of Mental Health’s description of self-care:

Self-care means taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health. When it comes to your mental health, self-care can help you manage stress, lower your risk of illness, and increase your energy. Even small acts of self-care in your daily life can have a big impact.

No Magic Formula, No Mystery

There’s no magic formula for self-care in a pandemic. At the same time, there’s really no mystery around it. We probably already know what the core components are – healthy-living principles like eating well and getting enough rest and finding ways to stay physically active. We just have to follow them. In the same way, there are many tried-and-true strategies for managing stress and calming the mind. We just have to find the ones that work for us. That itself can feel like a daunting task in a world already chock-full of challenges.

In fact, a recent study suggests that the more stress we’re under, the less likely we are to engage in self-care. The researchers studied the records of about 1,000 people of high socioeconomic status in four Spanish-speaking countries. They analyzed participants’ perceived levels of stress and self-care habits, then examined how those factors impacted self-measurements of well-being. In short, self-care made a difference to well-being in all populations, but higher stress went hand-in-hand with less self-care. People with the highest reported stress levels were the least likely to benefit from the mediating potential of self-care because they were less likely to practice those habits. 

The experience of debilitating stress can directly interfere with the ability to pursue coping strategies in some people, the authors said, while in others it can be a motivating factor. Alternatively, highly stressed people may view self-care as one more thing on the “to do” list.  

“Implementing those behaviours could be seen by the person as an additional source of stress and reduce their engagement with health promotion behaviours, which in turn lower the levels of well-being.”

Updated Thinking on Self-Care

The Spanish study alludes to some of the key deficiencies in our thinking about self-care. One is the sense that it’s too complicated or expensive, in terms of personal energy resources. The idea that it takes effort to coordinate or requires some special diet or exercise device, or a master class in meditation, can also be a deterrent. Another common misperception is that self-care is by nature self-indulgent, a pampering luxury reserved for the wealthy, or special occasions.

“We need to get past the notion that self-care is something for brides-to-be on a spa day, or that we’ll get to it when everything else is done,” says Alex Karambelas, project director for COVID Support VT. “In a pandemic, self-care is a necessary and fundamental tool for maintaining our well-being. It helps us manage stress in the moment and build resilience to face continuing uncertainties as they unfold.”

“Self-care should be fun and enjoyable, not burdensome.”

~ Alex Karambelas, COVID Support VT Project Director

Keep It Simple

It may seem daunting to think about how to carve out space for self-care, especially if we’re already feeling overwhelmed. If that’s the case for you, start by narrowing your focus to one or two areas. Maybe it’s eating more whole foods or getting out in nature more. 

“It’s okay to take baby steps,” Karambelas says. “Set realistic goals and celebrate every one that you meet. Keep in mind that things can be harder when you’re under a lot of stress. Practice self-compassion.” 

What’s in Your Self-Care Plan?

Remember, self-care looks different to everyone. Finding what works for you and your lifestyle is where the fun comes in. 

Here are some tips from the National Institute of Mental Health to help you get started with self-care.

  • Get regular exercise. Just 30 minutes of walking every day can help boost your mood and improve your health. Small amounts of exercise add up, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t do 30 minutes at one time.
  • Eat healthy, regular meals and stay hydrated. A balanced diet and plenty of water can improve your energy and focus throughout the day. Also, limit caffeinated beverages such as soft drinks or coffee.
  • Make sleep a priority. Stick to a schedule, and make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Blue light from devices and screens can make it harder to fall asleep, so reduce blue light exposure from your phone or computer before bedtime.
  • Try a relaxing activity. Explore relaxation or wellness programs or apps, which may incorporate meditation, muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises. Schedule regular times for these and other healthy activities you enjoy such as journaling.
  • Set goals and priorities. Decide what must get done now and what can wait. Learn to say “no” to new tasks if you start to feel like you’re taking on too much. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.
  • Practice gratitude. Remind yourself daily of things you are grateful for. Be specific. Write them down at night, or replay them in your mind.
  • Focus on positivity. Identify and challenge your negative and unhelpful thoughts.
  • Stay connected. Reach out to your friends or family members who can provide emotional support and practical help.

Learn More and Find Resources

Download our Daily Stress Management Plan to remind yourself to stay on track with your self-care practices. Find it here.

Find a wide variety of Self-Help Resources on COVID Support VT’s website, including self-care tips and resources, stress-management resources, apps to help you relax and unwind, videos on a variety of mental health topics, and an overview of digital platforms that help you stay connected.

Visit Feeling Stressed? to learn more about stress, what causes it, what it looks like from person to person, and what you can do to manage stress.

Take the Stress Triggers Survey. Learning what your personal stress triggers are can help you manage stress better and know what to do if you or someone you care for needs support.Understand your own level of stress by taking the Perceived Stress Survey online, which is based on a scientifically validated measure.

Blog written by Brenda Patoine on behalf of VCN/Vermont Care Partners for COVID Support Vermont, a grant funded by FEMA and the Vermont Department of Mental Health

Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (in Vermont) for assistance.

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at www.COVIDSupportVT.org.

One-click translation to 100 languages of most everything on the COVIDSupportVT.org website, plus Multilingual Resources.

Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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