How to cope with stress and loneliness during the coronavirus outbreak, according to experts


The global coronavirus pandemic has forced people around the world to embrace a new normal in isolation.

Fear and uncertainty are causing stress levels to surge and more people than ever are experiencing the effects of loneliness, which makes it more important than ever to take care of our mental health.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed 7 in 10 Americans citing the virus outbreak as a source of stress and 1 in 3 saying it has caused "serious" stress. Loneliness isn't just in your head -- the feeling can have an impact on your physical wellbeing, too. Even when we aren't facing a global pandemic, social isolation can increase the risk of early death by as much as 26 percent, a study from Brigham Young University found.

"Loneliness is related to many different emotions -- it can tie into anxiety, depression or even boredom," Dayry Hulkow, M.S., Primary Therapist at Arete Recovery told AOL. "There could be tension in the body or we could be more hungry than we usually get. Maybe we’re more tired, lethargic or maybe we have too much energy and feel restless."

Experts share their tips with AOL on how to cope with these uncertain times.

Keep a "normal" routine

While your commute has now been reduced to walking from bed to your home workspace, you still don't have to give up some of your daily rituals.

"Having a thought-out routine and setting up separate areas for work time and off-time will help lessen the stress of changing up routines," Dr. Eric First, co-founder and chief scientific officer at R3SET Stress Supplements explains to AOL. "By practicing a new routine for 14 days, it can help lessen your stress and anxiety."

Focus on managing the things you can control, like the times you eat meals and when you wake up and go to sleep at night. Then, planning an after-work activity each day, like taking a walk, can help maintain a sense of normalcy.

Stay active

Staying active doesn't mean you have to suddenly work out every day if that wasn't something you did pre-quarantine. However, when you are working, living and eating in the same place, you're likely moving your body less than you would on a normal day.

"Three key systems that are amplified in times of stress are your nervous, endocrine (produces hormones), and your immune system. Persistent stress can create imbalances in these three systems that can lead to illnesses," Dr. First says. "Ensuring you maintain a healthy diet and exercise, a nutritional supplement that supports those three systems can keep you in good health."

Taking a walk, stretching or doing yoga are simple ways to get your body moving while social distancing. If you're looking for something more challenging to get your blood pumping, there are tons of at-home workouts streaming for free right now.

Connect with friends and family

Even though we can't physically see all of our friends and family at the moment, there are many ways to socialize digitally. Scheduling a phone call or video call with friends in the way you normally would schedule drinks or dinner can help reduce the feeling of loneliness.

"Even the perception of social isolation activates the stress response, which we are all likely experiencing at the moment," says Dr. First. "That is why it is important to stay connected virtually, finding comfort in knowing that you don’t need to be alone even if you are home by yourself."

Aside from phone calls and video chats, there are many creative ways you can connect with others, like sending a handwritten letter, joining a video app like Houseparty, where you can play games, or if you have a Nintendo Switch, play the increasingly popular game Animal Crossing with friends.

Set boundaries

Our entire lives exist inside of our homes now. From work to household chores and childcare, we're doing it all in one place, which can cause stress and confusion.

"It is important to first establish clear times for work and if possible in a separate part of the house and then time for family and related household tasks," Dr. First explains.

Aside from daily responsibilities you should also clear time in your schedule for things you enjoy. Let your family or partner know you're taking the time to do something you want to do and don't compromise on that time.

"Taking some 'me time': like getting lost reading the latest fiction bestseller, or finally organizing that closet ... helps shift your mindset back to the present away from the stress," he adds.

Create or engage in activities

Now is a "good opportunity to learn something new," Hulkow told AOL. Whether it's trying a new hobby, learning to dance or paint, even just trying a new recipe, there are endless activities to keep entertained. Hulkow suggests engaging in positive activities that will ease your mind. Some ideas include:

  • Listen to positive podcasts or music,

  • Watch movies or TV with a positive message

  • Take a virtual tour

  • Write about your experience or do some creative writing

  • Draw or paint

  • Work on a home project

  • Play games with friends/family in your home

Dr. First recommends also integrating "fun de-stressing activities" into your day, like cuddling with a dog or stuffed animal,or engaging your five senses.

"Literally stop and smell the roses! Aromatherapy is a simple and proven way to reduce stress and smells great too! Take your time when you’re eating your meals, really think about how it tastes, smells, and how it feels in your mouth," he says. "Integrating a new structure for work/life along with mini-destressing activities can keep you on task and sane during this current environment."

Set goals

The pandemic may seem never-ending, but eventually, we will be able to get back to our regular lives. Your goals for the year don't have to vanish. Set goals and spend time "exploring ways to achieve them" during this time, Hulkow says. Refocusing on goals you had pre-coronavirus or setting new goals will give you something to look forward to. You could also create a list of things you're excited to do after isolation is over, which can help to focus on the positives.

Ultimately, Hulkow says, the most important thing to do during this time is to "focus on the positive and hold on to hope."

"I know this is really difficult right now but this is temporary and this is going to pass and we’ll eventually go back to our lives."

Originally published