Managing Stress During a Global Pandemic

By Samantha Reddoch for LONGMONT MAGAZINE

COVID-19 has settled over Colorado like a dense fog that’s left us with little visibility and foresight for what our futures will look like three weeks or three months from now. It’s changed our world; it’s changed the way we learn, work, recreate, socialize, and everything in between. Some of us have lost friends and family to the deadly grip of COVID-19. Some of us have lost work hours, others their jobs in total. Some of us stand in bread lines wondering how we’ll make the car payment or maybe even rent.

Prolonged isolation can increase stress and leave us struggling in survival mode. 

Such dramatic change is reshaping the 21st century human experience, and with the uncertainty of it all, there’s no surprise that rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide in both children and adults has increased on a national level since March. Even before the Pandemic, Colorado ranked higher than the national average on its rates of substance abuse, overdose, and suicide. Those rates have increased statewide since the arrival of COVID-19 which is a sign that many of us are feeling powerless and overwhelmed. And rightfully so.

Intense feelings of stress can leave even the most resilient of us mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted as we hope for the day that COVID-19 fades into the background like a child’s nightmare and everything returns to normal. Prolonged stress can leave us in survival mode, and to get back to living, even in these strange times, we have to manage the feelings inspired by that stress. The thought of managing those feelings might be overwhelming, especially if we don’t think we have the psychological tools to do so.

Fortunately, there are tools available to us, and they don’t require cash or credit—just an open mind according to Chandra Lontz-Smith of Genuine Heart Counseling. Lontz-Smith encourages everyone, not just her clients, to engage in mindfulness and regulation as a means to manage the negative psychological and emotional impacts of stress and isolation during COVID-19.

Mindfulness and regulation are two halves of the same coin; without mindfulness, we can’t practice regulation, and without regulation, we can’t manage our stress, at least not well. For Lontz-Smith, mindfulness “needs to come from a place of warmth and care,” especially because “we’re all learning to love ourselves in one of the biggest, most scary, most frustrating situations we’ve ever had to face. Mindfulness is helpful because it gives us permission to kind of dis-identify with our thoughts.” By that she means that mindfulness gives us space to recognize that we feel uncomfortable, maybe even insecure in our lives right now, and that those feelings are valid. It allows us to recognize that we don’t have to let those feelings dictate our lives or how we feel about ourselves on the whole. We can work tomorrow after we rest; we’re not failing just because we’re not in a constant state of positivity.

Maybe the dishes are piling up and deadlines for work or school are passing by unmet because we find ourselves couch locked. Rather than chide ourselves, with mindfulness, we can look inward and understand that we feel stressed. Mindfulness encourages us to practice radical self-acceptance, a concept foreign to most Americans, especially if we’re trying to accept that today we just can’t do the work our jobs or our lives demand of us because of our psychological or emotional state.

According to Lontz-Smith, mindfulness allows us to notice our bodily sensations, and regulation gives us tools to ease the feeling(s) attached to those sensations. “If we’re mindful of anger, if we can feel the clench in our fists, the heat in our cheeks, we can say ‘Wow, I’m really angry right now. I need to take a deep breath.’” By taking that deep breath, we begin to calm the central nervous system, and from there we can begin to move through big emotions like anger or sadness with grace.

Flexible though they may be, even kids need to be emotionally equipped to handle their ever changing environment. (Shutterstock)

Even small children benefit from mindfulness and regulation (they do require help from their caregivers to practice it). That help looks like the caregiver naming the child’s emotion, and then giving the child healthy regulation options like stomping their feet or pushing against a wall. Lontz-Smith encourages caregivers to model mindfulness and regulation by verbally expressing their own process to the child: “Oh, I am so hungry right now, but I can’t make dinner for another half an hour. OK. I’m gonna take deep breaths. I can get through this.” Children will learn to identify their emotions as well as how to handle them because they’re listening to a role model do so.

Kids aren’t immune to the stress of life, and given that we’re all stressed out right now, outside resources may help adults further aide their children. Hand in Hand Parenting is one such resource. One technique recommended by Hand in Hand Parenting is the creation of Special Time which Lontz-Smith explains is “an experience that only happens for 15-20 minutes that’s different because there’s no interruptions like grocery shopping; the only job for the [caregiver] is to love on their kiddo. It’s like salve to a kiddo because they don’t generally have uninterrupted time with their [caregivers].” That uninterrupted time fosters connection between an adult and a child, and children crave connection with their caregivers, particularly when they’re stressed.

Those of us who live with teenagers who are busy individuating themselves from family may assume that Special Time is only for little kids. It’s not. The key to Special Time with a teen, according to Lontz-Smith, is persistence and “making space available, making dinners available, making yourself available.” If a teen seems uninterested in talking, we need to let them know we’re available by inviting them to come to us whenever they feel ready.

Sometimes mindfulness and regulation don’t alleviate big emotions like sadness, anger, and grief. Lontz-Smith says that if “we’re thinking about [our source of stress] constantly, if it’s really difficult to feel comfortable or safe or relaxed, if activities that generally bring us joy are suddenly difficult to do, then it would be a good time to reach out to [a mental health professional].”

When traditional therapy sessions aren’t available or hard to accommodate among schedules, telehealth is a valuable option. (Shutterstock)

Mental Health Partners Longmont suggests on their website that it’s time to seek professional assistance if there’s unusual changes to our sleeping and eating habits that can’t be attributed to an outside influence like going from a day shift to a night shift at work. They also recommend seeking professional help when there’s an obvious increase in alcohol or drug consumption. Additionally, like the Center for Disease Control, MHPL suggests limiting exposure to media (including social media) and increasing physical activity in order to better handle stress.

All that said, Lontz-Smith is “of the opinion that we could all use a therapist,” and she hopes that “anybody would call because we can learn so much more about ourselves and gain new perspectives.”

Telehealth appointments may be made with Lontz-Smith. Telehealth and in-person appointments may also be made with MHPL which has increased the size of its mental health professional staff to accommodate the growing psychological needs of our community that have been spurred by COVID-19.