How to cope with COVID-19 stress and anxiety

With the constant stream of information surrounding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), it’s easy to feel stressed or anxious. But stress can weaken your immune system and make it harder for you to stay healthy. That’s why it’s so important to manage your stress and anxiety using healthy coping methods.

We spoke with Diana Nichols, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at MD Anderson, about how to manage your COVID-19 anxiety and stress.

Limit COVID-19 updates

One of the easiest ways you can reduce stress and anxiety is to limit your exposure to things that trigger anxiety. Staying informed is important, but with so much new information coming out so rapidly on television and social media, it’s important to set boundaries for when and how much news you read about the pandemic. This can help keep feelings of anxiety at bay.

“It’s important to choose your information sources carefully,” says Nichols. She recommends seeking information from trusted, reliable sources, including balanced media outlets, the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health care organizations like MD Anderson.

“Moderation is key,” says Nichols. She recommends checking updates two or three times a day to keep from being overwhelmed. “Check in often enough to get only the information you need to know,” she adds.

Take care of your body

Stress can impact many parts of our bodies, and can cause shortness of breath, sore muscles and even fatigue. To avoid these side effects, it’s important to take care of your body. Deep breathing, meditation and yoga can all help.

“Taking a few minutes to go through a short meditation can be helpful when things get overwhelming,” says Nichols. She adds there are many apps for smartphones that offer guided meditation to help you relax as needed.

Maintaining a healthy diet also plays an important part in stress management. Choosing plant-based proteins, eating whole grains and limiting red meat are all ways to give your body the vitamins and minerals it needs to stay healthy. It’s also important to limit alcohol. For cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol. It is linked to several cancers, including breast, colorectal and liver cancer.

Though anxiety can keep you awake, aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night so your body can reset. “It can be stressful to be in bed and not be sleeping,” says Nichols. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, she recommends reading in low light or trying a mindfulness exercise to quiet your thoughts.

Talk about your fears

It’s OK to feel overwhelmed, but keeping it inside can lead to more serious mental health consequences. Sharing your fears and anxieties with loved ones may help you feel less alone. Talking about your feelings with others can also help you cope.

But, Nichols says, if conversations about current world events cause more anxiety, you should avoid these topics. “It’s always helpful to process thoughts and feelings, but if talking to certain people makes you more anxious, you can limit your contact with them,” she says. 

If this is the case for you, journaling is a good way to share your thoughts, without having to talk about them with your friends or family. By writing things down, you can cope with a range of emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis or current world events. The benefit comes from writing your thoughts, but you don’t necessarily have to let anyone read them if you don’t want to.

Nichols says seeking professional guidance can also help. If you’re an MD Anderson patient or caregiver, reach out to your social work counselor.

Use good hand hygiene

While there’s no guarantee that you or a loved one won’t get COVID-19, the best thing you can do is to manage your risks by taking precautions, including washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, avoiding touching your eyes and staying home if you aren’t feeling well.

And, know that the safety and health of our patients and workforce members is our top priority at MD Anderson, and that we are rapidly implementing protocols and precautions to protect you. If you have concerns, speak with your care team by sending a message via MyChart or by calling the clinic. You can find more information and learn about these precautions at mdanderson.org/coronavirus.