Woman sitting along staring out the window
The reality of the COVID-19 outbreak is still sinking in for many people as countries around the world experience restrictions to movement. (Getty Images)

How to cope with COVID-19 anxiety, stress, irritability and uncertainty

VCU psychology professor Michael Southam-Gerow offers advice for preserving mental health amid the coronavirus.

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COVID-19 has disrupted the lives of just about everyone, prompted fears for the health and safety of loved ones, worries about the economy and employment, and has led many to remain isolated from others for extended periods.

Amid all this, taking care of one’s mental health is incredibly important, says Michael Southam-Gerow, Ph.D., professor and chair in the Department of Psychology in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences.

Southam-Gerow, whose lab focuses on the improvement of mental health services for children and families, spoke to VCU News about how to cope during the global pandemic and times of uncertainty.

From a mental health perspective, what do you think about the impact of the combination of a deadly pandemic, an economic downturn and long-term social isolation?

The reality of the current situation is still sinking in for many people as we all begin to experience restrictions to our movement. Most humans do best with predictable and controllable stressors. COVID-19 and its effects are neither of these. As a result, we are all facing an uncertain present and an uncertain future.

Southam-Gerow pictured in blue suit jacket and red striped shirt.
Michael Southam-Gerow, Ph.D.

For most of us, there is an odd sense of pending doom that we are familiar with from hurricane warnings that come a few days out, when the sun is shining and things seem perfectly fine. We are being told that things are serious and that we need to make major changes in our lives, but most of us don't have a concrete idea of what that means.

All of this uncertainty is difficult. And the disruption of routine is a major challenge. We tend to like routine.

As a result, many of us are likely to be more irritable, anxious or upset than usual. We may be short-tempered. We may feel panicky and don't know why. This is all normal. We are in an unprecedented time in our history and we don't have a lot to draw on from past experiences to guide us.

What advice would you recommend to promote mental health as we get through these stressful, anxiety-inducing times? Many of us are isolated at home, away from coworkers, friends and family. Do you have thoughts on how best to deal with the mental health aspects of social distancing?

Stay informed. Follow reliable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, as well as established media outlets; for example, all of the COVID-19 information on the New York Times site is free. Every day, new things are learned and we should all stay abreast of this information.

Take media breaks. We should NOT spend all of our time getting information. Make a point to check in once or twice a day. Do not spend all day glued to the news or to social media.

Follow expert advice. It seems clear now that we need to engage in as much social distancing as possible. We should all make our best effort to follow the guidelines prescribed by federal, state and local authorities. Remember that (a) the number of infected folks will very likely increase in the coming days and weeks and (b) social distancing will make those numbers lower than they would have been.

All of this uncertainty is difficult. And the disruption of routine is a major challenge. We tend to like routine.

Stay connected. Reach out to friends and family using voice or video connections. Check in more often than you normally would, especially to those in your life who are the most isolated. Use any forms of communication that are not face to face. Make a point to reach out to someone every day.

Establish and maintain a new routine. Create predictability and controllability in the new reality of social distancing and self-quarantine. Eat your meals on a schedule. If permitted, take a daily walk. Engage in daily in-home exercise. Set up times for work or schoolwork and adhere to those as best as you can. Consider making part or all of your routine public on social media channels to model for others and to help hold you accountable. Public statements lead people to follow through. And the routine will help you and your body feel more at ease.

Self-care. All of the social isolation is a good time to revisit old and cultivate new self-care routines. There are many ways to go. Exercise in your home; there are many apps available for home-based workouts. Take long walks alone or with your pets. Engage in old or new hobbies. Learn to meditate. Read a book — or two or more! Go ahead and stream some good content. This is going to be stressful in many ways. It will also be boring for some (and hopefully many) of us. A good time to hone your self-care routine.

What advice would you give to students who are dealing with the stress of moving to online classes? And what advice would you give to faculty who also have to shift online?

This is really tough for students who are used to regular peer contact and rely on peers and other context clues to help them maintain effort in classes. Establishing a daily routine for your classes, including blocking out time for each one that is consistent with what is needed for each class, is a good idea. For example, set 10 a.m. to noon as your time for your psychology class. Use that time for readings, homework or other assignments. Set up chat groups with friends or peers in each of your classes and see if they can hold to a schedule with you. That way, you can work together and hold each other accountable. The benefit of holding to a schedule with the group is that you get the work done and have some social contact.

I would also suggest making a point to reach out to friends and family, individually and in groups. Even reach out to those you might not think of as your good friends. We are so used to many, many daily contacts. Send them a text and or a Snap or even, gasp, make a phone call. Many of us have unlimited talk minutes that we never use. Maintaining contacts is going to be important for managing stress, as it will allow us all to compare notes on what is working for us during this crisis.   

Lastly, be patient. Patient with your professors, as many of them are doing online learning for the first time. They are going to make mistakes. And they are really doing their best. And be patient with yourself. This is a scary and uncertain time. Self-care is going to be important. Hold yourself accountable to your schoolwork and also make sure you take care of yourself.

This must be a confusing and scary time for kids, especially. Is there advice you'd offer parents for helping their children navigate this crisis from a mental health standpoint?

This is really confusing for children. Suddenly, they are stuck in a weird snow-day situation, where they may not be allowed to play with many, or any, of their friends. And their parents are feeling nervous, likely working from home. A few quick pieces of advice for parents.

First, you are a role model. That is, your coping is being modeled for your child. To the extent possible, worry in private and present a realistic but confident manner in front of the kids. You know your own child best. Measure your response for their personality, age and maturity level. In general, though, children will feel best when caregivers are confident and making clear decisions. You model to them that this is a tough situation and that we are going to cope with it by using the following strategies. Consider the strategies outlined earlier and later in your plan. This situation will be one we all remember for a long time after it is over. You can help make that memory as positive as it can be through your choices.

Establish and maintain a new routine. Create predictability and controllability in the new reality of social distancing and self-quarantine. Eat your meals on a schedule. If permitted, take a daily walk. Engage in daily in-home exercise. Set up times for work or schoolwork and adhere to those as best as you can. 

Provide information at the level that your kids need. Most kids tend to know their limits. Instead of preparing a long speech on the situation, consider presenting some basic facts and then letting your child ask questions to learn more. As long as you present the basic information, (a) we will be staying home, (b) there is a disease spreading around and we want to stay protected from it and, (c) we may be staying home for a while, your child can ask the questions that most concern them. Children often have different sorts of concerns than adults do. If you let your child guide the conversation, that will help you hone in on what is most distressing for them and to offer some ways to cope.  

Remember that most kids have a lot of trouble making choices with a future goal in mind. Most don't have the cognitive capacity to understand the trade for current loss for future benefit. They focus on the present. You may not be able to convince them of your wisdom in restricting activity, so you may have to rely solely on your authority. This might be particularly true for teens and early adults, some of whom are home from college after experiencing a year or more of a lot more freedom. For these older children, they may need to receive a heavier dose of information that helps them see the gravity of the situation and how their actions could contribute to making things worse.

As with earlier advice, creating a new daily structure will be key. Create and maintain a new wake-up and bedtime routine. Establish mealtimes and hold to them as much as possible. Establish work and break times.

Lastly, love them. In times of stress, we are so focused on survival that we forget about the little things. We will all get a little (or a lot) cranky with each other in close quarters day in and day out. Take time to show and express your love for your family. As long as everyone is healthy, hugs and snuggles are strongly encouraged. Let your family know how much you love and appreciate them. Consider spending time each day sharing a moment of gratitude. We can get through this and it will be easiest to do so if we remember how important our connections to each other are.