So much of our world has changed in just a few weeks. Many people are feeling anxious, disrupted, and overwhelmed. If you have been struggling with your own anxiety or depression, the current COVID-19 outbreak may trigger the feeling that you’re spiraling downward, fast.

The two most troubling aspects of this crisis, for many people, has nothing to do with contracting COVID-19. It’s the uncertainty and isolation.

  • Uncertainty stems from unanswered questions such as, “If I get it, what are the steps I should take?” “When will this end?” “When it does end, will life ever truly return to normal?” Uncertainty is unsettling.
  • Also, during trying times, people typically come together. Now, we are all told to stay apart—6 feet apart. For someone struggling with anxiety or depression, any form of separation can be troubling.

An abrupt change in routine combined with decreased social and physical contact are shown to not only increase boredom and isolation, but can lead to sadness and hopelessness.  All of these factors can exacerbate existing psychological challenges and place you at risk for developing new ones.

If you are struggling emotionally, please know that you are not alone and that taking care of yourself and your family can help you to cope with unanticipated stress.

Here are four strategies for emotional coping during a crisis:

1. Recognize this experience as grief

Amidst a crisis, it’s easy to feel widespread fear . . . and loss. Loss of normalcy; loss of employment security; and loss of connections. Much of the discomfort you feel mimics emotions associated with grief: restlessness, irritability, unexplained aches, sadness, and early on, perhaps denial. Grief is the experience and/or anticipation of loss.

What helps? Self-compassion and employing healthy coping skills. Healthy emotional coping means being accepting of all of your feelings—no matter how scary and uncomfortable. The acceptance of our most difficult emotions can bring forth a sense of peace. To feel calmer, remember to breathe. Deep breathing helps us to be more aware of our emotions—without being overwhelmed by them.

2. Embrace new ways to stay connected

We have a longing for belonging, because we were created for relationships. Let’s face it, if you are battling depression or anxiety (or even not), social distancing can feel confining. While spending time at home is enjoyable to some, for others it feels like entrapment.

When crisis is looming, it’s easy to hunker down and go inward—but that can lead to loneliness. Staying emotionally close to loved ones, while always helpful, is particularly critical during a crisis.

During this time of physical distancing, it’s important be part of a community that offers a safe and consistent place to be vulnerable. This pandemic has forced us to find creative ways of being together while staying at home—and staying sane.

Seek support and lend support via text messages, calls, or video chats. But try to limit screen time and get outside. Spending time in nature helps us to rebalance and is good for our emotional health. When outdoors, notice 10 cool things that stand out to you and breathe in the fresh air—even if it’s from your front porch or deck.

3. View small steps as progress

Managing your own feelings about what’s happening in the world along with what your kids are experiencing is no easy task. Listening to your younger kid share about how much she misses her friends may lead to feelings of guilt. Hearing your teen complain (again) about his missed activities may lead to exasperation and eventually trigger feelings of “not doing enough.”

If you’ve grown up as a people pleasing overachiever, you continuously raise the bar until that raised bar becomes your baseline. Constantly running at 100 mph, trying to do it ALL, can cause burnout. Excessive thoughts about where you are versus where you believe you should be can be self-destructive.

Instead, work toward an attitude of acceptance of whatever occurs, rather than growing impatient if you don’t achieve a specific result. On days you feel far from your best, try to employ huge doses of patience. Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can, and that slow progress is still progress.

4. Talk to your kids about emotions

Kids and teens, in large part, respond to what they see from the adults around them. They are taking it ALL in, even when it seems like they aren’t. When times feel uncertain, our discomfort with change can lead to a resistance to face our own strong emotions.

Before reassuring your kids, first acknowledge what YOU are feeling. If you find that you are in your head a lot, like many of us are lately, try to recognize the internal dialogue and the emotions those thoughts spark.

Teaching children that emotions are not to be avoided helps to build their resilience. As parents, when we acknowledge our emotions, we model to our kids how they can accept their own difficult emotions—no matter how uncertain life might feel.

Sometimes it’s hard to know the exact words to say, but start the conversation. Silence is scary to kids, so they need us to help them to make sense of the chaos. One conversation starter is “I know I’ve been impatient lately. Sometimes I feel afraid about everything that’s quickly changing. What about you?” And end with, “We’ve gotten through so much and I know we will get through this too.”

Despite what is happening around them, global crisis or family drama, your presence has an amazing ability to bring calm and safety to their world—even when you’re feeling neither. And, that is a superpower.

If you or a loved one is struggling, help is available. Seek professional support. There are many qualified mental health professionals who are providing telehealth services. Not sure where to look? Online Counselling and Psychology Today are two helpful resources.