This isn’t news to you: It feels like the world has been turned on its head. 

Businesses are closing and entire industries are suffering. Schools are shut down for the foreseeable future. Professionals have found themselves working in entirely new environments. Everybody is worried about their own health, as well as the health of their loved ones.

Daily habits and routines have had to shift, and decisions that used to be inconsequential now seem monumentous.

Are you feeling stressed yet? If your answer is a resounding yes, you certainly aren’t alone. We’re living in a particularly anxiety-inducing time right now. 

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an entire page dedicated to stress and coping where they explain, “Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Coping with stress will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.”

But here’s the thing: Coping with stress is often easier said than done. With so many pressures weighing down on all of us, how can we recognize when our own stress levels are increasing? And even more importantly, what can we do about it? 

Are your own stress levels climbing? Here’s how to tell

“In times of acute stress, there are a wide range of physical, emotional, and behavioral signs of stress that show up,” explains Dr. Lori Roberto, Clinical Psychologist. 

Symptoms of stress can vary based on the individual, but Dr. Carrie G. Rogers, Clinical Psychologist explains that you should keep an eye out for:

  • Changes in sleep patterns (such as difficulty falling or staying asleep)

  • Irritability

  • Muscle tension

  • Headaches

  • Changes in food or beverage consumption (such as eating when you aren’t hungry or increasing your consumption of alcohol or other mood altering substances)

You might already know how you tend to react to extreme stress, so the most important thing is to just stay in tune with yourself. “I always say listen to your body and pay attention to what feels different or difficult,” Dr. Roberto adds. 

5 strategies to manage your stress

Of course, spotting signs of increased stress is only half of the equation. Next, you need to know how to address it.

There isn’t one tried and true method that will work for everybody. “In a situation as novel as this, there is no such thing as ‘perfect’ coping,” explains Dr. Roberto. “What works for one person may not work for someone else. It is important to acknowledge that there are a wide range of feelings and responses that could be considered normal or expected.”

That means it might take a little bit of searching to find a stress management technique that works well for you. But, if you’re looking for a starting point, below are five coping strategies that the experts recommend. 

1. Change your opinion on stress

Most of us have a pretty negative opinion about stress. That’s for a good reason—it forces us to feel a lot of negative emotions. 

“There is good and bad news about stress. The bad news is that it requires some energy to deal with and it can feel out of our control, especially something as giant as this pandemic,” says Dr. Roberto.

But, while it’s totally normal to not have a favorable outlook on high stress levels, it’s worth considering the other perspective. “The good news is that we can learn to think about stress differently, and we can use so many tools and techniques to help our body respond to stress reactions,” Dr. Roberto adds.

Flipping the script in this way can actually change how we feel about stress itself. “There is literature that shows that our beliefs about stress play a role in how we experience stress,” Dr. Roberto continues. “So, if we view stress as natural and simply our body’s way of preparing ourselves for action, this can be a great beginning point.” 

2. Limit your exposure to the news headlines

Consider this: If you knew that rollercoasters sent your anxiety levels through the roof, you probably wouldn’t buckle up and ride rollercoasters day in and day out, would you? 

It makes sense. Yet, there’s something different about consuming the news. Despite the fact that it causes increased feelings of stress for so many of us, we continue to endlessly scroll and binge those headlines.

Dr. Rogers says that a better move is to limit your time spent viewing or reading the news and latest updates about the pandemic. Whether you need to install a browser blocker or set a timer for yourself, hold yourself accountable to those restrictions. Preventing that onslaught of information will hopefully help you keep your stress levels at bay. 

3. Try breathing and mindfulness activities

You’ve probably heard that focusing on your breathing is a simple and effective way to get out of your own head and focus on the present moment. Dr. Roberto states that she always starts with this foundational skill by encouraging exercises like:

When it comes to mindfulness, Dr. Rogers says an app (such as Calm, Insight Timer, Simple Habit, and Headspace) can also be helpful. Many are offering extended free trials as a result of the pandemic. 

4. Implement a new daily routine

Your daily life probably looks a lot different than it did a month or so ago. Maybe you’re working from home instead of in your office. Perhaps your kids are home from school indefinitely. Oh, and you probably aren’t allowed to leave your house unless you need to grab essentials. 

That sudden shift in your typical day will only add to the increased stress and lack of control you’re dealing with. So, Dr. Rogers recommends implementing a new daily routine that you can stick to. 

“It’s important to have this predictability and consistency, especially during a time where so much is unpredictable and out of our control,” she adds. 

5. Seek professional help when you need it

We’re living in unprecedented times, and it’s totally understandable if you’re finding it difficult to cope with these increased pressures. 

If you notice that you’re really struggling (or even if you just want to share your thoughts and concerns in a helpful, supportive environment), it’s best to connect with a mental health professional. 

“Most are offering 100% telehealth services (video appointments) during this time,” shares Dr. Rogers. So, you’ll get the benefit of guidance from a professional, without having to take the risk of leaving your home. 

You can’t control what’s happening, but you can manage your stress

I’m sure if we could snap our fingers and instantly repair what’s happening in the world, we’d all do it immediately. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the reality we’re living in. You don’t have any power over how this situation will play out, but you can take the above steps to better manage your reactions to this increased stress. Just be aware that it will take some time and patience to refine your own process.

“Realize that coping is a very dynamic process, so we often have to practice, practice, practice and repeat for each new situation,” explains Dr. Roberto. “We don’t ‘arrive’ at good coping. Rather, effective coping is a process of being flexible over time.”

Beyond that, stay focused on continuing to just put one foot in front of the other. “This is a difficult time, to say the least,” Dr. Rogers concludes. “As much as possible, try to take it a day at a time and remain present focused.” 

Kat Boogaard
Kat is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer who focuses on careers, productivity, and self-development. She has written content for The Muse, Trello, Atlassian, QuickBooks, Toggl, Wrike, and more. When she's not at her desk, you'll find her spending time with her family—which includes two adorable sons and two rebellious rescue mutts.