COVID-19: Taking care of your emotions in times of crisis

In times of crises the media noise can elevate some people’s levels of stress and this can represent a hidden problem that should be looked at.

In his article Protective and Damaging Effects of Stress Mediators, Neuroscientist Bruce McEwen1 summarized the very diverse effects associated with chronic stress. Perhaps the most common one is high blood pressure, which fails to drop after the stress-producing agent is gone, increasing the risk of heart failure. Stress has also been linked to the development of insulin resistance, which may increase the incidence of diabetes.

Among many other possible effects, overloads of stress can produce difficulty to sleep, reduce bone density due to sustained elevated levels of cortisol concentrations, accelerate signs of ageing, and trigger mental problems.

A healthy level of concern can help us take sensible preventive actions, but balance is crucial to avoid harmful emotions. Here are some mechanisms that can help you to manage your feelings in this time of crisis:

Acknowledge your own emotional situation

As stated by Dr. McEwen, people experience events differently. The arise of stress is subject to their unique conditions and their general state of physical health, including their behavioural and lifestyle choices.

The first step to manage your feelings is to assess your own state of mind and distance yourself from external panic. You can be empathetic to others’ distress without elevating your own. In this regard, the World Health Organization2 recommends “assisting others in their time of need can benefit the person receiving support as well as the helper.”

Financial stress: stop thinking short-term

One of the main sources of stress for investors has been the market’s intense downside volatility since the beginning of the crisis. Some people around the world are checking their portfolios daily and even serval times a day. They will surely find unprecedented raises and drops of more than 10% on a daily basis.

Even in times of non-crisis, checking your portfolio daily will give you a mistaken impression of your future gains. We talked about it on our Chart of the Month video, How often do you check your portfolio?. Remember: daily fluctuation is not indicative of long-term performance, especially in times of crisis.

Keep things in perspective. As it happened after every crisis seen before, the market will recover, and the value of your investments will come back (as long as you don’t sell).

After the crisis ends, the reactivation of the economy will start fast. The G7 governments are already putting in place stimulus programs, and the private sector will adapt, providing products and services needed after the crisis.

Balance your exposure to media

Just as most things in life, excesses lead to trouble. While information is a fundamental resource, excessive exposure can also distort our perspective of reality. Holman and colleagues3 found a correlation between elevated media exposure and higher levels of distress after several notorious emergency events. Their report reads:

“Media exposure to collective stress may have measurable negative psychological effects, and extensive, repeated exposure to event-related media coverage may be an important mechanism through which these negative impacts are spread beyond the directly affected population.

Our results suggest that health care providers should advise people presenting with stress-related problems to limit time spent watching news coverage (…)”

A well-balanced exposure to media can help us gauge the dimensions of the situation appropriately. In this regard, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention4 recommends taking a break from the media and making time to unwind. Also, the World Health Organization5 suggests to spread and amplify positive stories and positive images to help balance the media.

Take care of your body

Dr. McEwen recognizes that anxiety may be exacerbated by a rich diet, lack of exercise and by the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. Conversely, adopting healthy eating habits, doing exercise regularly and getting plenty of sleep can help reduce the levels of stress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends activities such as meditation, stretching or even just taking deep breaths.

Stay balanced during the quarantine

In a recent article, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America6 suggests switching the focus of the quarantine, from unwanted confinement to an opportunity to spend time on yourself and your family. You can pick up projects you have left behind, and you can enjoy more time with your children, partner, and even with your pets.

The World Health Organization also recommends maintaining active social networks through digital means (chatting, video conferencing, telephone). Another thing you can do to distance yourself from chaotic thoughts is to avoid chaotic surroundings. Keeping your place tidy and maintaining your routines can help you stay calm.

Keep things in perspective

The American Psychological Association (APA)7 recommends remembering that most people infected with COVID-19 will only experience mild symptoms and to acknowledge the work done in the prevention and treatment of citizens with higher vulnerability.

If you take a moment to appreciate the people around you and the things you have, you will probably find healthy relationships, a loving family, material means, and many other reasons for positive thoughts.

The virus hit the world unexpectedly, it spread very fast, and it has continued to produce uncertainty about the future. In times like these, we should look after our health in a comprehensive way, keeping a sharp mind to react logically and for our family’s benefit.

1McEwen BS. (1998) Protective and Damaging Effects of Stress Mediators. New England journal of medicine
3Boston Marathon bombings, media, and acute stress. E. Alison Holman, Dana Rose Garfin, Roxane Cohen Silver. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jan 2014, 111 (1) 93-98; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1316265110

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