Dr. Paul on coping with the stress of the COVID-19 outbreak

It’s important to get the facts, limit exposure to TV news media and take care of yourself.

I was at the supermarket this weekend and noticed that the store was busier than usual and many of the shelves were empty. I could feel the tension in the air, as people prepared for the worst. Anxiety and fear can spread even more quickly than an infectious disease.

It’s completely normal to experience increased stress during an infectious disease outbreak. Listening to the news, reading the newspaper and noticing how the world around you is reacting will likely intensify normal apprehension. Our brains have a strong bias toward perceiving potential threats. We want to protect ourselves from possible danger.

It’s helpful to pay attention to how you and your family are reacting to this stress. Some adults and children may notice more worries than usual, sleeping problems, irritability or difficulty relaxing. Some may have increased physical discomfort — headaches, muscle pain or possibly fatigue. Children may have nightmares and difficulty separating from their parents, or may exhibit behavioral problems. Some who are already struggling with depression or anxiety may notice an increase in symptoms. It can be hard to identify why someone is feeling worse.

So what can we do to cope more effectively and handle increased stress during an infectious disease outbreak?

Get the facts. When anxiety is high, some are prone to overreact to a potential threat. Take some time to learn more about the outbreak from our health authorities. Visit the Snohomish Health District and King County Public Health websites for information and fact sheets that provide you with guidance. Factual information helps you keep excessive anxiety at bay.

Limit exposure to TV news media. Some adults find themselves glued to television when there is a potential crisis. It’s reasonable to stay abreast of local and national developments without becoming a news addict.

Take care of yourself. Recognizing the increased stress from these current events, it’s important to make sure to get enough rest, exercise, eat a healthy diet, limit alcohol consumption and engage in hobbies and interests. This is the time to use all of your healthy coping resources.

Help your kids. Children can be particularly impacted by the stress of an infectious disease outbreak. Keep young children away from television news, which can be scary for little kids. Pay attention to your children’s stress and anxiety level. Listen to their concerns and answer their questions if they want to talk about what they are thinking and feeling. Spend more time with them and let them know that you are there for them. Keep adult conversations about the outbreak away from younger children who may not understand what you are saying, but will feel the tension. Children are emotional sponges and will absorb whatever emotions their parents are expressing. Reassure young children that you will take care of them. This is a time for more hugs!

It’s important to acknowledge your own fears and concerns. This is a time for all of us to work together as a community to be safe, secure and helpful to each other.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.

Helpful resources

Tips for talking with children: tinyurl.com/edh-fam

Tips for coping with social distancing and quarantines: tinyurl.com/edh-fam2

Help line: If you find yourself feeling increased distress, you can call 1-800-662-HELP to find mental health resources in your local community.

Free emotional support: Optum, a leading health and behavioral health services company, is offering a free emotional-support help line for anyone feeling stressed or anxious about the coronavirus. The toll-free number, 866-342-6892, will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for as long as necessary. The service is free of charge and open to anyone. Specially trained Optum mental health specialists help people manage their stress and anxiety so they can continue to address their everyday needs.

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