Dr. Warner’s Advice on How to Cope with COVID-19 Stress

“In Stressful Times, Make Stress Work for you.” “20 easy ways to manage stress eating during quarantine.” “Coronavirus: Stressed, depressed, and feeling bad? You're not alone.” This is just a quick sample of the many headlines indicating the high stress levels in the United States during the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.  

Melissa Lee Warner, M.D., is the new director of the professionals program at The Farley Center in Williamsburg. From anxieties and depression, to homeschooling, relationships and overall living with the unknown, Dr. Warner recently shared ways of coping and staying physically and mentally healthy during the pandemic on the radio program "Hampton Roads Perspectives with Dale Murray."

A general sense of fear, unpredictability, and the inability to count on things in an unknown time frame bear down heavily on many Americans. And the social support many people were used to has been compromised by shelter-in-place orders and social distancing rules. “The  lack of one-on-one interaction exacerbates anxiety and depression,” warned Dr. Warner. 

It’s especially difficult for people with addiction as members of the recovery community greatly benefit from sitting in a room with other addicted people, but it’s also hard on other people who simply can’t get to their yoga class anymore. Homeschooling is very tough for many parents because it adds another layer of stress to an already stressful scenario.

Dr. Warner reminded the audience of the recovery motto “one day at a time.” It’s important to step away from unrealistic expectations. “The lower your expectations, the higher your serenity. When everybody’s home and there is a lot of homeschooling stress, try the recovery tool of being in the moment,” Warner told host Dale Murray. “If you’re getting some schooling done today—excellent! But tomorrow is another day.” Sometimes it has to be one breath at a time. “The breath is a powerful anti-anxiety and calming tool.” Spending an extra minute deeply breathing—in and out—can be very effective. 

“Don’t be too judgmental of yourself,” said Warner. “Another powerful tool is making a gratitude list—and not just in your head. Take a piece of paper and a writing implement, this could be a regular, daily practice. I recommend focused breathing, the gratitude list, and also acceptance. Do the best you can and be glad about it.” 

Another great stress reliever for any anxiety and mood disorder is meditation. “There are countless free apps that can be accessed,” Warner said. “Just try meditation—never mind how busy or not your mind stays—it’s a powerful modality.”

These are of course strategies to deal with any kind of stress, not just homeschooling. Stress is particularly toxic for people suffering from mood or addictive disorders. Such individuals should do everything they can to relieve stress, said Dr. Warner. “Whether it’s getting into a space by yourself for a while, or taking a bubble bath, or doing breathing exercises. A really important tool right now is the telephone.” Or video conferencing platforms like Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype that allow you to see people as well.

Deliberately think about stress-relieving activities, and maybe even plan them as a priority,” Warner recommended. “Make sure they happen to support your resiliency.”

Physical activities for stress relief are equally important. It’s not a coincidence that you see so many people out and about at the moment. Riding a bicycle, taking a walk, or walking the dog offer many health benefits. Or you can do numerous fitness activities at home. There are online services for yoga, workouts, and similar exercises. 

It’s important not to fall into an emotional maelstrom of anxiety and depression, especially during self-isolation. “Anxiety is an energized disturbance where either the mind or the body is too restless,” explained Warner. “Depression tends to be a lower sort of energy. Depression and anxiety can make each other worse, anxiety can be draining, and draining in turn can contribute to depression.”

Stressors of all sorts can lead to the development or the escalation of addiction. Depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances can all have an impact on the development or the worsening of addiction if people attempt to self-medicate their mental health issues. Host Dale Murray pointed out that alcohol sales have increased dramatically in recent weeks. 

People should be careful with their alcohol consumption. If addiction is running in your family, you may have a genetic predisposition, and beginning or increasing the use of alcohol really could put you at risk. “If someone is depressed they might feel better for a period drinking alcohol because it has a numbing effect but at the same time, it’s a depressant,” said Warner. “I would say, it might be the right time to stay away from alcohol or to be very cognizant how you integrate it into your life.”

If you have any concerns about your alcohol consumption or other substance use, or if you are worried about a loved one, call the Farley Center at 800.582.6066. “There are no wrong questions,” said Dr. Warner. “You can really call in with any question” about substance use.