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Coping with the Stress of COVID-19

Stressed student with laptop
by Katie White Austin

Photo by from Pexels

As our global society deals with the outbreak of COVID-19, many people are experiencing greater feelings of stress and fear. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) acknowledges that the stress brought on by this specific outbreak may be overwhelming for children and adults alike (2020). However, there are a number of strategies we can employ to manage and cope with stress.

Physically Managing Stress

  • Engage in physical activity – Physical activity has antidepressant effects and can serve as a buffer against the impact of stress (for review, see Salmon, 2001). With many gyms closed, working out can seem less than feasible. However, there are countless fitness videos available for free on YouTube and many online fitness subscription services are offering extended free trials or even free online classes. Also, taking a quick jog or walk around your neighborhood (while maintaining social distancing practices/adhering to your community’s guidelines) is a great way to break a sweat and get some fresh air.
  • Eat a good meal – Eating foods that are high in fat and sugar may temporarily alleviate stress, but they can have downstream negative consequences like weight gain or changes to reward sensitivity (Yau & Potenza, 2013). Instead, consuming complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can help lower stress by boosting serotonin levels and protein rich foods like eggs, lentils, and chicken, beef, or pork which promote alertness and elevates mood (for review, see Singh, 2016). If you’re craving something sweet, try some dark chocolate which may even have cardiovascular benefits (for review, see Ding et al., 2006). 
  • Get more sleep – Previous research suggests there is a complex and bidirectional relationship between poor sleep quality and stress (for review, see Kahn, Sheppes, & Sadeh, 2013). It is likely that poor sleep exacerbates stress and greater stress can lead to more sleep problems. The University of Texas at Dallas’ Counseling Center recommends developing good “sleep hygiene” to cope with stress. They recommend setting an electronics curfew 60 minutes prior to bed and avoiding alcohol/caffeine 4-6 hours before going to bed.

Emotionally and Mentally Managing Stress

  • Stay connected with others – The need for social connection is central to human nature, and loneliness is associated with poor health outcomes (e.g., Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010; Jaremka et al., 2013). Although it is vitally important to maintain physical distance during this time, social distancing does not and should not mean social isolation. Try reaching out to friends or family via video chat can help with stress. Host a video happy hour, play games via a number of free apps for any smart phone, or just call a loved one to connect.
  • Take a break from the news – The ability to obtain news updates is greater than ever before, and people can acquire information through multiple platforms like social networking sites, their television, and traditional print media. However, information overload occurs when we are exposed to more information than we’re able to process at one time (Lee et al., 2016). Information overload, especially cyber-based information, (i.e., information coming from laptops, smart phones, texts, emails, and news websites) is associated with greater perceived stress, poorer health, and less time devoted to contemplative activities (Misra & Stokols, 2012). It’s good to take a break from the never-ending stream of information. Set a news “time limit” for each day. Then, turn on a show or movie that makes you laugh, play a board game with your roommates (or your partner/kids), or use your creative side and paint, sing, or dance. Don’t lose sight of your hobbies even during this time of uncertainty.
  • Practice relaxing – Individual differences like personality may impact coping technique preferences (for review, see Carver & Connor-Smith, 2009). There are many practices that are associated with stress reduction including mindfulness and/or meditation (for review, see Goyal et al., 2014), focused, deep breathing exercises (e.g., Paul, Elam, & Verhulst, 2007), engaging in prayer or spiritual reflection (e.g., Belding et al., 2010), or journaling about one’s cognitive and emotional experiences with stress (e.g., Ullrich & Lutgendorf, 2002). Reflect on what helps you cope during times of stress and anxiety, and create time in your schedule to implement these practices.



Belding, J. N., Howard, M. G., McGuire, A. M., Schwartz, A. C., & Wilson, J. H. (2010). Social Buffering by God: Prayer and Measures of Stress. Journal of Religion and Health, 49(2), 179–187.

Carver, C. S., & Connor-Smith, J. (2010). Personality and Coping. Annual Review of Psychology, 61(1), 679–704.

CDC. (2020, February 11). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ding, E. L., Hutfless, S. M., Ding, X., & Girotra, S. (2006). Chocolate and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review. Nutrition & Metabolism, 3(1), 2.

Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M. S., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., Berger, Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D. D., Shihab, H. M., Ranasinghe, P. D., Linn, S., Saha, S., Bass, E. B., & Haythornthwaite, J. A. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(3), 357–368.

Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 218–227.

Jaremka, L. M., Fagundes, C. P., Glaser, R., Bennett, J. M., Malarkey, W. B., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2013). Loneliness predicts pain, depression, and fatigue: Understanding the role of immune dysregulation. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38(8), 1310–1317.

Kahn, M., Sheppes, G., & Sadeh, A. (2013). Sleep and emotions: Bidirectional links and underlying mechanisms. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 89(2), 218–228.

Lee, A. R., Son, S.-M., & Kim, K. K. (2016). Information and communication technology overload and social networking service fatigue: A stress perspective. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 51–61.

Misra, S., & Stokols, D. (2012). Psychological and Health Outcomes of Perceived Information Overload. Environment and Behavior, 44(6), 737–759.

Paul, G., Elam, B., & Verhulst, S. J. (2007). A Longitudinal Study of Students’ Perceptions of Using Deep Breathing Meditation to Reduce Testing Stresses. Teaching and Learning in Medicine, 19(3), 287–292.

Salmon, P. (2001). Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: A unifying theory. Clinical Psychology Review, 21(1), 33–61.

Singh, K. (2016). Nutrient and Stress Management. Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences, 6(4).

The University of Texas at Dallas’ Counseling Center. (2020). Anxiety Toolbox Workbook.

Ullrich, P. M., & Lutgendorf, S. K. (2002). Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24(3), 244–250.

Yau, Y. H. C., & Potenza, M. N. (2013). Stress and Eating Behaviors. Minerva Endocrinologica, 38(3), 255–267.

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