Healthy Coping during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Healthy Coping during COVID-19 Pandemic

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health experts mainly identified mental disorders and gave treatment through counseling and medicine. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, more people are experiencing mental health emergencies. People with pre-existing mental health conditions may have worse symptoms. Those without serious mental illness before the pandemic may feel overwhelmed from social distancing, changing working spaces, quarantine lives, and isolation.  Counseling services and clinic availability for mental health support were limited before the pandemic in many areas. Rising mental health needs during COVID-19 put more strain on an already strained system.

To help reduce this strain, a focus on self-care—such as connecting with others, making time to unwind, and taking care of your body—are suggested. These healthy coping skills can be beneficial for both mental and physical health needs. Healthy coping can be especially helpful in rural areas, where mental health access is limited.

What is healthy coping?

Healthy coping are skills used in stressful, uncertain, and evolving situations to manage mental, emotional, and physical stress.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created the exact conditions that healthy coping skills can help. Practicing healthy coping strengthens our emotional health. Strong emotional health leads to success in work, meaningful relationships, and positive improvements in our heath. Finding ways to cope healthily can help maintain and strengthen mental health during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Healthy coping skills range from checking in with your breathing, participating in light physical activity (like walking or biking), or using healthy eating habits to fuel our minds and bodies. While healthy coping skills can help manage stress, they do not replace professional mental health services. If you have thoughts of severe self-harm, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The Lifeline network is available 24/7 in the United States.

Healthy Coping Strategies

Stress Management: Our emotional, mental, and physical health can be harmed when we experience stress. During a pandemic, many factors can add stress to a person’s daily life. It is important to learn to manage this stress and protect our health daily. Below are examples of some stress management skills. Not every idea may work well for each person. Do not lose hope! You can try each skill a few times. Then continue ones that best fit your needs.

Try Slow Breathing: When we feel stressed or anxious, our natural physical response is to breathe faster. We may also have headaches, chest pain, tiredness, dizziness.

  • By slowing our breathing and taking breaths from the stomach rather than our chest, we send a message to the brain that we are relaxed and calm.
  • The brain tells the rest of the body, like the muscles and the heart, to slow down and the whole body begins to relax. Being calm and relaxed is important when trying to manage your stress.
  • Here are some instructions for slow breathing:
    • Try to relax your body. Relax your muscles, shake out your arms and legs, making them floppy and loose. You can also roll your shoulders back or tilt your head side to side.
    • You want to breathe at a rate of 10-12 breaths a minute. Breathe three seconds in and three seconds out. If counting while breathing is too much, try to breathe as slowly and as purposefully as possible. For a more details, follow along with the video below to practice.
  • This video guides you through slow breathing.
  • Use and practice slow breathing regularly when you feel anxious or stressed. The main goal of this is to slow your breathing down. Find a way that works for you, even if it means you are not counting by threes or not breathing from the stomach. Find what helps you calm your breathing and body.

Seek Calming: This can help with racing emotions or when you feel numb. Examples of ways to calm down include:

  • Yoga: a practice that creates a union between the body, mind, and spirit. It includes breath control, simple meditation, and specific body positions. These are healthy, relaxing, and reduce stress.
    • Here is a quick video that explains yoga and its benefits. YouTube also has many videos that can lead you through a yoga practice.
  • Body scan meditation: Body scanning involves paying attention to parts of the body from your feet to your head. You bring awareness to every single part of your body. You notice any aches, pains, tensions, or general discomfort to become more aware of the places that are causing you stress. Click here to check out a quick body scan example.
  • Visualization: picturing positive images, ideas, symbols, or using positive thoughts to help calm the mind. This could be sitting on your couch, laying down, or any position that makes you feel the most relaxed. This guided visualization can help you practice.
  • Resources and how-tos for some skills can be found in this.

Practice Mindfulness: meditation where you focus on what you sense and feel in the present moment, without judgement. Mindfulness can be practiced in multiple ways. Some are slow breathing (mentioned above), guided imagery, or other relaxation strategies that help a person reduce stress. Meditation is explained through this short clip.

Use Grounding Techniques: like reality reminders, bring your thoughts to the present moment. This can prevent you from worrying about the future or feeling sad about the past. This is like mindless meditation, where you can separate yourself from things that upset you. Grounding skills include bringing awareness to your five senses. This article provides some examples and steps for grounding yourself in the present.

Reduce Screen Time: Now more than ever, screens are a constant. We use computers, phones, and TVs for work or as a break from work. Staring at a screen can cause eyestrain, headaches, overall discomfort, and lower focus in the long-term. By reducing the time spent looking at a screen (both for work and relaxation) we can relieve stress. It also can remove a source of anxiety and depression.

Spend Time Outdoors: Take a walk outdoors and take in nature. It is proven to:

  • Lower blood pressure and reduces stress-related hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline.
  • Improve mood by decreasing feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger.
  • Improve focus by giving your mind a break with time to refocus.

Write a Gratitude Journal: Writing thoughts of gratitude focuses on the good things in life that we may take for granted. By using a gratitude journal on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, we stay aware of sources of happiness around us. These everyday things can bring gratitude no matter how small or large they may be. It also helps you reflect on your successes and allowing yourself time to think about what you are thankful for.

Normalize Stress Reactions: Emotional reactions to stress, especially during the pandemic, are normal. They are a part of our everyday existence. Rather than knocking yourself down for being angry, sad, or anxious, take a step back to think about why you feel that way. Give yourself credit for making it through each day. You should be proud of yourself for simply existing right now!

Connectedness of Physical Health and Mental Health

Avoid Harmful Substances: Stress itself causes many changes in our body. It releases hormones that prepare your body to handle strain. These hormones respond to what is causing stress. Using substances cause changes in your body. Many changes may be the same changes that stress causes. In some cases, substances may appear to decrease stress. However, the effects of drugs (including misuse of prescription drugs) or alcohol add to the chemical and hormonal changes caused by stress.

  • Using substances to cope can lead to a long-term inability to handle even minor stressors.
  • Continued alcohol and non-prescription drug use can lower your immune system defense. As your immune system weakens, your body is more likely to get infections. You can experience poor eating or sleeping, mental and physical exhaustion, and disease. This article goes in depth with how substances can affect your immune system. This is another published article.
  • Long-term drug abuse makes users more sensitive to everyday stress than non-users.
  • Drug use and mental health are interconnected. Mental health issues can be worsened by substance use. This makes it challenging to treat health issues as they get worse over time. Check out this blog that explains the relationship between mental health and drug use.
  • One of the best ways to avoid turning to harmful substances is to find other support. This helps prevent use, overcome abuse, or work toward improving your mental health.

Be More Physically Active: The benefits of exercise include improving your physical condition and improving your ability to fight disease. Staying active is also vital for mental health and lowering stress.

  • Studies have shown that physical activity reduces tiredness, improves alertness and focus, and enhances brain function. This is important in lowering and fighting stress because stress drains your energy and ability to focus or perform daily tasks.
  • If your body feels better, so does your mind.
    • Exercise and other physical activity produce hormones. Hormones are chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators. Exercise lowers the levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
    • Consistent physical activity can improve your sleep. Good sleep can positively affect your ability to control stress.
    • Even five minutes of exercise can have anti-anxiety effects to combat stress.
  • Exercise is meditation in motion. After you take a walk or jog, you begin to let go of your daily tensions. Focusing on a single task in the moment can lead you to stay calm, clear, and focused in everything you do.
  • Do what you love! ANY form of movement will increase your fitness while lowering your stress. The most important thing is to pick an activity that you enjoy. Examples include walking, stair climbing, jogging, dancing, bicycling, yoga, gardening, weightlifting, swimming, and many more. Try new things to find out what most fits your lifestyle and personality.

Start Healthy Eating Habits: Good nutrition is an important stress management tool. When our bodies are poorly fed, stress takes a greater toll on our physical and mental health. Therefore, nutrition and stress are related. Tips and tricks to eating well, lowering stress, and improving health include:

  • Eat regularly. Your brain needs food to work its best. Eating regularly throughout the day helps keep your blood sugar stable.
  • Get your healthy fats. Omega-3 fatty acids found in walnuts, flaxseed and fish oil are linked to greater brain function. Low levels of this fatty acid can result in depression and/or anxiety.
  • Eat your veggies!
  • Add high-fiber foods. High fiber is linked to greater alertness and lowered stress. So, add fiber-rich foods like oatmeal, nuts, beans, fruits, and vegetables to your diet.
  • Trade caffeine for more sleep. Caffeine increases blood pressure and may make you anxious, especially if you already have anxiety. While drinking caffeine may seem to help you focus better, some studies show that caffeine only restores what is lost through lack of sleep. Instead of turning to caffeine, try the natural booster – sleep!
  • Stock up on healthy snacks. If you know that a stressful or busy time is approaching, prepare by stocking up on quick, healthy snacks. Some examples include granola, almonds, peanuts, carrots with hummus, yogurt, or fresh fruit. These snacks will give you energy for a long day and provide a break.

Improve Your Sleep Hygiene: Sleep hygiene refers to healthy sleep habits that improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. Sleep is an essential part of our lives because it recharges our bodies and minds. This leaves us refreshed and alert when we wake up. Without enough sleep, the brain cannot function properly. This can impair your ability to focus, think clearly, process memories, or lead to mood shifts. Most adults require between 7-9 hours of nightly sleep. Adolescents may need much more sleep, since their bodies and minds are still developing. There are several tips and tricks to improve your sleep hygiene. For example:

  • Be consistent. Try going to sleep around the same time every night and wake up at the same time. This allows your body to adjust to getting enough hours of sleep.
  • Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. If you reduce screen time an hour before going to bed, you can fall asleep faster since your eyes are not exposed to bright lights prior to trying to fall asleep.
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime. These can affect your ability to fall asleep, making it difficult to achieve your needed hours of rest.
  • Using a sleep diary can help you understand how your routines and daily activities affect your sleep schedule.
  • For more information on how to improve your sleep habits, look at this

Coping with Grief and Loss

People may experience grief and loss of loved ones during the pandemic. Some tips are listed here to cope with grief.

Write a Journal or Share Memories: Reminding yourself of good memories or sharing what a person meant to you could replace sad moments with gratifying feelings. Writing a journal or a letter to the person who has left could be another option. This could be especially helpful for younger children who do not understand death.

Planting Trees or Plants: Remembering the loss of loved ones with plants or trees can be an effective way to cope with grief. Caring for plants could help with taking a step back from feeling sorrow. You could revisit the place where the trees or flowers are planted when you miss that person. Planting the lost person’s favorite plant is also an option.

Reach out for Help: Connect with community members or loved ones in a COVID-19 safe way while grieving. Allow others to support you during this difficult time. While connection is helpful, it does not a replace seeking professional mental health services. If you have thoughts of severe self-harm, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would life emotional support, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Keeping in Touch with Loved Ones: Social connections are crucial for our health and well-being. Social connection is especially important when someone has recently passed away. Grieving is normal for people who have lost someone close to them. Keeping in touch with other loved ones is a good way to connect and remember our loved ones.

Summary

COVID-19 has changed our lives in many ways. As this situation continues, it is important for us to take care of our mental and physical health. Healthy coping skills can help manage our own stresses in ways that work for us and fit within our own lives. People may have different healthy coping skills that are best for them. It is recommended to try many options over time as stressful situations come up.

Remember to reach out and ask for help when you need it. Reach out to your family, friends, and co-workers when you’re struggling. And don’t forget to check in with them on how they are doing during this time. Even when you cope healthily or find support from loved ones, sometimes professionals are best suited to manage a problem. Do not be afraid to seek professional support if you need it.

Check out the Following Resources that Support Healthy Coping:

COVID-19 in Iowa: Find the latest updates about COVID-19, local resources, and vaccine information.

National COVID-19 Resiliency Network: Find testing locations, vaccination centers, mental health facilities, and many more local resources in your area through the resource navigator.

Psychology Today: An online service that can help you find mental health professionals near you.

Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.):  A.A. is a mutual-help group that provides support for those with an alcohol use disorder or for those in recovery. This website can help you search for local A.A. meetings occurring near you.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP or 1-800-662-4357. This helpline is free, confidential, and available 24/7, 365 days a year to provide treatment referral service information to people facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service is available in both English and Spanish.

AllTrails – Free phone app and website that can be used to find local nature trails near you. This provides details on the location of the trails, how long the trails are, how hard the trails are, and conditions of the trail.

YMCA  – Find your local YMCA. The Y Is a nonprofit that works to strengthen community by connecting people to their potential, purpose, and each other. They focus on empowering young people, improving health and well-being, and inspiring action in and across communities.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Hotline – SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, is a USDA program that provides nutrition help to people and families based on income. SNAP provides monthly funds to purchase groceries at any time. If you or someone you know is interested in seeing if they qualify for SNAP or want to apply for SNAP benefits, you can do so through calling the SNAP hotline by phone at 1-855-944-FOOD (3663). Or you can email FoodAssistanceOutreach@iowafba.org. For more information on how to apply, visit the Iowa Department of Human Services website.

An additional list of resources the University of Iowa Prevention Research Center for Rural Health has put together in response to COVID-19 look here.

Our staff has also created a social media toolkit for organizations or individuals to use to spread the word about the importance of healthy coping. This tool contains posts and images for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Please share this tool with others!