Handling Fear and Stress During a Prolonged Crisis

By Shawn Healy, December 30, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting all of us in ways we never expected. Social distancing, schools shuttered, courts closed, layoffs, events canceled, financial insecurity. The list goes on.

How Are We Supposed to Cope With So Much Rapid Change in Our Lives?

Begin with an acknowledgment that it feels very unsettling to be reminded how little direct control we have over our lives – particularly over the elements of our lives that are most important to us. It is completely normal to struggle with this.

While unforeseen crises in our lives are stressful, they can also be opportunities. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to convince you to put on rose-colored glasses and pretend all is well. I am suggesting that it can be helpful to remind yourself that the coronavirus crisis is affecting all of us.

So, What’s the Best Approach to Handling the Stress We’re Feeling?

First, to deal with the control issue, distinguish between what is within your direct control and what is not. Then direct your time and energy at the former.

Start with a personal check-in. How are you doing with this “new normal”? What are you feeling? What aspects of this change are the most challenging for you? What potential benefits do you see from spending more time at home, working remotely, possibly having more time on your hands, or having your children home from school?

Then, based on what you need, consider trying a few of these suggestions.

Stick to Routines and Reinforce Habits

Working remotely or staying at home for extended periods can be disorienting because it disrupts routines and habits. Routines and daily habits not only keep us centered, but they also save time because we have to make fewer decisions. I don’t need to decide what I’m going to do if I have already committed to something as part of my routine. The absence of that routine now forces me to spend time and energy making more decisions. To reduce this demand on your time and energy, form new routines in your current situation. For example, even though it might not seem necessary, give yourself a schedule to follow at home just as if you were going into the office.

Don’t Neglect the Basics

Prioritize healthy sleep routines, diet, exercise, breaks throughout the day, and healthy boundaries with yourself and others. Social supports are crucial, so keep up your social interactions, too. Use technology and creativity to foster relationships, even while following health guidance, observing safety protocols, and complying with legal orders.

Seek Out Social Connections

If you are used to interacting with people effortlessly as part of your typical routine, you may not have had to consciously seek out social interactions in the past. If you are more extroverted, you might have been energized by these interactions and not even realized it. We often do not realize how important those regular social contacts are until they are gone. Even though it might feel clumsy to initiate those contacts now that your routine has changed, take the chance that your co-workers or colleagues also miss socializing and would appreciate you reaching out.

Consider Technology Your Friend

It’s no surprise that many organizations have suddenly started using videoconferencing programs and cloud-based project management systems to connect across disparate work locations. In addition to using more technology to complete work and enable client contact, explore how technology can offer a temporary replacement for the social connections you are suddenly missing due to the disruptions in your routines.

Help Others

In situations where we feel significant stress, it is common to feel disempowered. One way to feel more confident in the face of uncertainty is to find ways of helping others. Especially if you are losing work hours or are unemployed, identifying ways to help those around you can be very healthy for your self-esteem and overall mental health.

Drink More Water

It may sound a bit silly, but we all need to drink more water. A common way to pass the time is to snack when you feel bored … or when you’re hungry … or when you want a break or … whenever. Drinking more water can help us stay hydrated, allow us to better distinguish our hunger from our thirst, and give us something to do when we are bored instead of snacking on carbs that we will later regret.

Get Outside

Again, it might seem silly to put this on the list, but there is a significant benefit to going outside every day, breathing fresh air (even if it is cold and rainy), and looking at a tree for even just one minute. Seriously, research shows that looking at a tree for 60 seconds has a positive impact on your well-being.

Use Downtime to Accomplish a Neglected Household To-do List

I know I am not alone in having a long “I intend to get to this someday” list of tasks that I have long neglected, usually because I feel too busy with other pressing matters. If you aren’t able to use your time as productively as you would like (whether due to a lack of work, distractions at home, or a wandering mind), give yourself permission to try accomplishing one of the tasks on said list.

Resurrect Old Hobbies and Explore New Ones

Instead of filling your time with activities that have little to no reward, try reconnecting with hobbies that you once enjoyed. If they brought you enjoyment when you were younger, they might once again. Also, explore new hobbies, given your current situation. Hobbies that involve creating something or cultivating a new ability provide a lasting reward that reminds us that our time and energy can produce something tangible and long term.

Change for the Good: Take Advantage of What You Learn

One benefit of a drastic change to our routines is the opportunity to re-evaluate them. It’s easy for people and organizations to get into the “this is just how we do things” rut. Now that so many things have turned on their head, brainstorm about making changes that would be helpful not only in the present moment but in the future. This could be far-reaching – for example, allowing more flexible work options permanently, or moving your practice to the cloud.

Or, the changes you make might focus on your personal productivity and happiness. For example, right now I am experimenting with playing some upbeat instrumental music while writing this article. Normally, I would be concerned about how music might affect my co-workers. Since they aren’t physically in the same workspace, I feel freer to experiment with what might be helpful to accomplish tasks.

Remember: Even though the future is uncertain, you do not have to go through this alone. Many resources are available. If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out for help.

Be well.

Shawn Healy

This article originally appeared on www.attorneyatwork.com, on March 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist with Massachusetts Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc. (LCL). He runs stress management groups for law firms and provides training sessions on time and stress management to bar associations, solo attorneys, and law firms. A frequent writer on the topics of conflict resolution, anxiety management, resilience, and work-life balance, he is a contributor to the LCL blog and tweets for @LCL_MassLawyers.

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