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How to combat the COVID-19 anxiety and stress outbreak


The coronavirus (COVID-19) has triggered a stress and anxiety outbreak, according to Bernadette Melnyk, Ohio State’s chief wellness officer and dean of the College of Nursing.

“Fear of spreading the virus, the fear of losing loved ones, job and financial insecurity,” Melnyk said during a recent webinar. “We’ve made a mindset switch from thriving to surviving. It triggers feelings of hopelessness, isolation and social withdrawal.”

To turn the tide against the anxiety, stress and depression you might be feeling, Melnyk has a variety of strategies.

“Take control over the things you have control of.”

One thing you can control is connecting with family and friends. One of her first tips is to get away from the term “social distancing,” which she believes promotes social withdrawal and isolation, leading to despair, anxiety, stress and panic.

“Distancing is extremely important, but let’s talk about physical distancing, not social distancing. We need virtual social interaction like crazy right now.”

So find ways to socialize regularly with family and friends through phone calls or social media channels.

“Look for silver linings.”

Focusing on positive images and moments is important. For instance, you might have noticed more families taking walks together in your neighborhood. Maybe you can reconnect with family members or friends on Facebook or drop them an email, text or phone call.

Also, is there anything you can do for someone? Something to show kindness and caring?

“We need that more than ever,” Melnyk said. “We need to make each other smile.”

“Tune in to how you are dealing with stress.”

We all deal with stress in a variety of ways: fight mode, flight mode, anger, irritability. By monitoring your emotional and physical symptoms, you can regulate yourself more effectively. Understanding emotions is especially important for parents.

Melnyk highlighted the emotional contagion hypothesis, which states when parents show stress, depression or anxiety, it transfers onto children.

“My message to parents, one of the best things you can do for children is manage emotions, stay as calm as you can,” Melnyk said. “If you are coping well, you’re going to be teaching children how to cope well too.”

“Self-care isn’t selfish. Routinely practice strategies to reduce your anxiety.”

There are many evidence-based, healthy ways you can cope with stress, anxiety and depression. Some of those Melnyk highlighted include:

  • Be in the present moment: Focusing on the present takes your mind off anxiety for the future and guilt about the past. Being mindful and present is incredibly beneficial. A simple example of practicing being in the present would be taking a walk and focusing on what you see, feel, hear, and smell, instead of letting your mind wander to COVID-19 fears.
  • Practice gratitude: Put up a gratitude board. It will help you stay focused on what you have rather than what you don’t have. “I encourage parents to get up every morning and say to your kids, let’s say two or three things we’re grateful for,” Melnyk said. “If you get into that habit every day, you will experience less stress.”
  • Breathe: Five slow deep breaths through our nose for four seconds, out of our mouth for six seconds, can cut stress and lower blood pressure. JustBreathe is a great resource to help you learn breathing techniques and meditation. 
  • Cognitive-behavior therapy/skills building: Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people see the connections between their thoughts and feelings as well as behaviors. A key strategy is teaching people how to turn negative thoughts into positive ones so they feel emotionally better. Over the next few months, the College of Nursing will be offering Ohio State faculty, staff and students a way to develop CBT skills through a program called MINDSTRONG. To participate, visit
  • Unplug: Disconnect yourself and your children from social media and even television. Find reliable sources for news rather than allowing yourself to be bombarded with negative images and thoughts.
  • Seriously, take care of yourself: Eat healthy 80% healthy food and 20% “want” foods. Get physical exercise. Get good sleep (again, unplug a couple hours before bed). Additionally, take time for yourself, even if it’s 10 minutes a few times a day. This isn’t just a nice thought stress hurts you in so many ways. “It kicks in the hormone cortisol that has numerous negative side effects on the body, including decreasing our immune system,” Melnyk said.

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