Choose healthy coping strategies for stress
Video by Keri Collins Lewis & Michaela Parker
When confronted with the need to change or adapt to life’s circumstances, people cope with the resulting stress in many ways.
David Buys, health specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said the domino effect of multiple changes caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic may result in trauma.
“Usually trauma is a major life event that leads to intense stress reactions,” Buys said. “But we are seeing so many changes in such a short time it’s a struggle to manage our feelings and thoughts without falling into anxiety and depression.”
As the human body is exposed to flight or fight hormones for an extended period of time, it takes a toll even in otherwise healthy individuals.
“I’m seeing people working at all hours of the day and night, because their stress has led to insomnia,” Buys said. “This then can lead to exhaustion, which causes irritability, outbursts of anger, and in some cases may lead to verbal or physical abuse of loved ones.”
Buys said self-awareness is the first step to dealing with stress and trauma in a helpful way.
“Try to look at yourself as though observing a friend or beloved family member,” he said. “How is that person dealing with life right now? If you were a friend, how would you help that person? You would not yell at your friend or tell her to get her act together. You would help her figure out ways to deal with her feelings. Likewise, be gentle with yourself.”
Next, brainstorm a list of positive coping strategies that have worked in the past and some new ideas worth trying. Buys suggested staying connected with loved ones, choosing healthy habits, engaging in playful activities and making time for favorite hobbies.
Start a “silver linings” list of all the positive aspects of life during the pandemic.
“Rather than dreaming about returning to normal, what good things have you discovered that you want to carry forward when our routines resume?” he said. “Cooking at home more, avoiding a packed schedule, walking daily, keeping a gratitude journal -- many of the practices or behaviors you may have been forced to adopt because of COVID-19 may be valuable habits to maintain.”
These practical tips fit within the three-part mantra Buys and colleague Michael Nadorff, associate professor of clinical psychology at MSU, developed as a focus for outreach related to the pandemic: stay connected, be proactive and find hope.
“Seeing these challenges as opportunities to grow will help us all emerge stronger on the other side,” Buys said. “By choosing where we focus our energy and emphasizing what we can control, we can calm our anxieties.”
Nadorff said the current reality requires adjusting expectations.
“This is literally a worldwide trauma that would potentially qualify someone for post-traumatic stress disorder,” Nadorff said.
He cautioned against expecting normal levels of productivity.
“I see a lot of guilt in people who are unable to be as productive as they were before this hit,” Nadorff said. “Many of us with kids are also taking on additional roles, not only as child care providers, but also as teachers. Many employers understand this, and adjust expectations, but not all. Maintaining the same productivity levels during this would be superhuman.” Nadorff said some coping strategies, though they may feel helpful in the moment, can lead to larger problems.
“I worry about this a lot both for those in recovery as well as those who have never had a problem with alcohol or other substances,” he said. “Many people are likely using alcohol as a coping mechanism, which is problematic given that it can be addictive and lead to numerous problems.”
He said those who are in recovery from substance use are at elevated risk because isolation creates distance between them and the recovery communities that so often help them maintain sobriety.
“Given this, it is important for us to check in with each other and to help support each other and encourage healthy coping,” he said. “Everyone has to guard against feeling helpless and hopeless, and completely disconnecting from the world. Human connections are essential for our well-being, so stay connected while socially isolating.”
The national suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Mobile crisis response teams exist for every part of the state and information can be located online at http://www.dmh.ms.gov.