Acknowledging Your Stress During COVID-19

Mother working at laptop with son hanging off her shoulders

Posted April 2, 2020 by UVM Medical Center

Coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted every aspect of our lives, from the way we shop for food, school our children, converse with others and work – or not. The very foundations of our community have been shaken and we're all trying to adjust. Changes to routine can be hard and changing our behaviors is even harder. Now, we're being asked to change many behaviors quickly to slow the spread of this disease. This is a lot to accept and we should give ourselves the patience and understanding to acknowledge how truly difficult this time is for both our physical and mental health.

It is our nature, as humans, to respond to an unknown threat and vacillate between troubling thoughts to becoming filled with thoughts that fuel anxiety, fear, helplessness and great sadness. We can become overwhelmed and even activate anticipatory grief. 

Humankind is not new to adversity. Now, it appears that the gap between the individual and the threat has transformed. At present, the threat of an invisible enemy targeting one's very own respiratory system is creating a new level of stress and worry. COVID-19 makes no place safe and thus the anxiety, fear, and depression that comes along with it may become greater in some ways as it may feel that there is no place to hide.  

In times of uncertainty we try to adhere to familiar frameworks that serve as organizing capacities and that have the ability to function as containing, familiar, and safe grounds. But what if we encounter situations that are not known, with no past experience in how to respond and we become overwhelmed as our set of tools may no longer provide an answer, or solution to the situation at hand?

What if this is a new formation of trauma, and what if for some it serves as a trigger that activates post trauma reaction?  Human kind has always thrived to gain some control and a sense of mastery in an effort to reduce a sense of instability and gain emotional control and a sense of safety.

What then, can we do as individuals and respond in ways that keeps us at balance in the face of an unknown threat?

Know that institutions and governing organizations are doing their very best to protect us. The very best scientists in the world are working tirelessly to find a cure. Researchers in the areas of virology, biology and microbiology discuss some of the observed patterns of the COVID-19 virus with some ability to predict patterns related to peak and reduction of contractions, and possible seasonal effects, as well as prediction of migration post the equator to other geographical hemispheres.

Stay Informed, with Limits

  • Protect yourself and follow the CDC recommendations, and your state's recommendations.
  • Allow yourself to listen to what is happening without feeling that you are not up-to-date with knowledge. Connect and listen to the news, media and social media yet limit exposure time and take a break. You can make a rule to listen and or watch media an hour a day, or stop when worry starts to build, accompanied by feelings of helplessness and sadness. Listen to your body's cues of stress and discomfort.
  • Regain a sense of control by doing; thus make a plan of what you can do, and how to function within the scenario of being quarantined at home. Choose how you will structure your day.


  • Conduct deep breathing and mindfulness relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization to reduce anxiety, increase sense of mastery, sense of safety and control; activate your parasympathetic nervous system and reduce these stressors that lead to increased rumination and stress response in the body.
  • Movement in nature, walk and exercise in solidarity, as we continue to keep a physical distance from others. We live in a beautiful state and the weather is getting warmer for walking outside. Watch out for mud season!
  • Use some of this time for self-exploration, be kind to yourself
  • Take a break, it's okay to be still and just be.
  • Cry if you need to, it's healthy.
  • Increase your immunity; take care of your body; sleep adequate hours, nap if needed, eat nourishing foods, and if desired take homeopathic supplements that promote immune strength
  • Be in the moment: We are forced to be in the moment as we are limited to less spaces and the “doing” aspect of our lives is therefore reduced physically. Allow breathing space for oneself, finding grounding and emotional self-soothing practices.
  • Employ humor; listen to funny jokes, humoristic movies, comedies, energizing songs and dance.

Get Creative

  • Engage in creative activities; sublimation is considered a high order defense as it channels urges, impulses and difficult emotions into acceptable ones, such as creativity. Do art with what you have at home; write poetry; use the black and white setting on your phone and view the world from a whole new lenses. Cook that recipe that appeared extremely complicated that you never had time or energy to follow.
  • Think about activities or projects that you wanted to do and never had a chance or time.

Stay Connected

  • Connect with others via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, telephone and group messaging. We know from research that social connections are vital to keep us hopeful, feel supported, and increase immune response.
  • Find ways to support others, be kind to others, without judgement and only support.
  • Be aware of your emotional needs; connect to a friend, family member or professional when feeling alone and scared, talk about your fears, anxiety and sadness. Research related to trauma, vicarious trauma and burn out discusses the need to share, talk, reflect and understand processes and receive emotional and mental support.
  • Take care of your loved ones. Make sure your loved ones are supported. We may have great concerns for those vulnerable individuals in our lives such as elderly, individuals with disabilities, etc. At this time we may need to accept that we can only connect to close family such as elderly parents via daily Skype sessions, or phone and leave heartfelt messages and groceries on their front porches.
  • Be kind. This global pandemic is impacting everybody, and in that we can find a sense of community understanding. Include others in your thoughts and perceptions, practice humbleness, do not judge, do not jump into conclusions, do not look for fault in others, and do not blame. Know that other people may exhibit various emotional responses to threat, such as increased anxiety, hypervigilance, irritability, anger, depression, and even mania. So, be kind to others. Be tolerant.
  • Relational and couples' work: In couple hood and relationships, we may notice that this crisis evokes various stress responses from us and our loved ones. Some people may become overly activated and may use reactions of denial, overdoing, or being engulfed with paralyzing anxiety. We may then see behaviors and emotional reactions that we do not see on a daily basis. What to do? Give space to oneself and the ‘other', approach one another with gentleness and time, and allow these emotional reactions to unfold. It's okay. Know that we each respond differently and we each require the mental and emotional space to metabolize what is happening around us.

This virus is here and is impacting everyone across the globe. This moment in our history, while unexpected and unwelcome, may be unifying if we allow it to be. We are in this together.

Shira R. Louria, PsyD, is a psychologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Learn More Ways to Stay Healthy and Cope with COVID-19