How to cope with the added stress of a pandemic?

March 19, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic will take a toll not only on the physical health of millions, but also the mental health. Even if you’re not directly affected by the disease, you probably are feeling the effects in your everyday life and work. Although we are now facing an unprecedented situation with the new coronavirus strain, this is not the first epidemic humankind is facing. We have a chance to learn from the past and see how people have coped with stress and anxiety caused by similar threats. Hopefully we can reduce the negative mental effects during and after the pandemic has passed and bounce back faster.

This article is not about how to fight a pandemic disease, but rather how to cope with the added stress of it all while you continue with your life and work. A lot of false information about the virus is circulating. Please find information on how to protect yourself and others from the disease from trustworthy sources such as WHO, CDC, or your local officials.

How does a pandemic affect us mentally?

Widespread viral illnesses affect us in various ways. These epidemic diseases are not only potentially harmful for our health but they also cause psychological distress such as anxiety, according to a study of the 2009 H1N1 or “Swine flu” pandemic. The level of psychological distress seems to depend on how you perceive the threat and how you cope with it. The study found that if you are intolerant of uncertainty, your natural way to cope with a threat may be less problem-focused and more emotional, leading to more anxiety.

For some the fear is more paralyzing than to others. Others try to keep super busy as a coping mechanism. We should try to understand that people react differently when faced with unknown threats—and be understanding of others’ struggles.

Those working on the front line probably suffer the most from the mental effects of an epidemic. For example, healthcare workers have reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression after previous outbreaks. The level of anxiety depends on a lot of factors as found in a review of the psychological impacts of SARS on healthcare workers. The good news is, psychological distress can be reduced even on the front line e.g., by encouraging a supportive environment in the workplace.

Not everybody works directly with infected patients, but this doesn’t mean that you won’t be affected mentally. A pandemic causes stress to a lot of people and potentially for a long period of time. It’s not only the fear of getting the disease or spreading it that causes additional stress—the financial, economic, and social consequences can all seem daunting. The disturbance to our everyday lives is certain, but it is also followed by a lot of uncertainty.

Hopefully we can take the lessons learned on the front line of fighting the pandemic and apply them to other lines of work too.

How healthcare professionals have coped with stress and anxiety and what we can learn from them?

When you have this extra stress in your life, it will tax your capacity to perform your daily tasks at work. As stress builds up, even simple everyday tasks at work can all of a sudden start feeling harder or more complicated. Don’t worry, this is natural, but you should take it as a sign of stress and increased exhaustion.

Worklife is about balancing stress and workload with the resources you have. This is why we should pay attention to the increased demands we face at work during a pandemic and be even more kind and understanding towards others as well as ourselves and take extra good care of each other.

So how have healthcare workers managed to reduce anxiety and stress when facing a common threat from an infectious disease? These lists of ideas have been generalized from the experiences of nurses and doctors from studies about previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS as well as from reviews of psychological outcomes during outbreaks and traumatic stress in the workplace.

Reduce your own stress or anxiety levels during a pandemic

  • Make sure you take time to rest. Do not work overtime if you don’t have to. Find ways to wind down, to relax, and recover from the stress.

  • Try to eat balanced and healthy meals. Make sure you get as much sleep as you can. Exercise. These health-promoting behaviors are especially important and will give you more energy to face stressful situations.

  • Try to find routines in your day even if your normal ways of working or living are disrupted by the pandemic.

  • Chat with your family and friends (e.g., by phone, video chat, or messenger) to share concerns, relieve stress, and support each other.

  • Don’t binge on news or gossip about the disease. If you only focus on the disease, your brain makes it the priority and you will find yourself thinking only about it. This is a sure way to spiral into anxiety.

  • If you find yourself constantly worrying about the pandemic, try distracting yourself by keeping busy. You can still enjoy recreational activities such as watching movies and doing exercise or outdoor activities. Try some relaxation methods too such as meditation, yoga, or listening to podcasts or audio books.

  • Take protective measures as recommended by the authorities (e.g, washing and sanitizing hands, coughing and sneezing into a disposable tissue or your upper sleeve, avoiding unnecessary contact with others). Know that you’re doing your part in slowing down the pandemic.

Reduce stress and anxiety with your team or colleagues during a pandemic

  • Be encouraging among coworkers. Share your thoughts and concerns. If you face issues, try to focus on solving them together and not ruminating. Show support to each other and show that you care.

  • Try to cultivate a positive attitude among your coworkers. Share jokes and humor. Elevate the team spirit and feeling of togetherness.

  • Share any good news. If possible, share news about your infected colleagues getting better.

  • Keep working and keep busy.

How to reduce stress (and slow down the infections) during a pandemic if you are an employer or a supervisor

  • Be prepared and offer training and education on stopping infections in the work context. Make clear guidelines for infection prevention in your work environment. Show preparedness by enforcing infection control: no hand shaking or hugs, no coming to work sick, offering means to wash and disinfect hands, etc. Communicate about the solutions, preparations, and guidelines, but try not to provoke fear.

  • Make sure every employee gets sufficient rest or time off. Promote other healthy behaviors too, such as exercise.

  • Cultivate social support. Try to root out social rejection and unnecessary isolation in your work community. Actively find ways for people to work tightly together even if physical distance has to be kept. Make sure people stay connected.

  • If you are in a supervisor role, be in contact and show support to your teams. Make it absolutely obvious that you are there for them.

  • If possible, make psychological counselling services available for those who need it.

Stay safe and follow the instructions given by your local authorities. And remember to take care of your mind as well as your body when protecting yourself, your close ones, your friends, colleagues, and team members from the pandemic.

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