Coping with Stress during Infectious Disease Outbreaks and How to Take Care of Your Behavioral Health

Coping with Stress during Infectious Disease Outbreaks and How to Take Care of Your Behavioral Health

If you or your loved ones are seeing your stress levels rising in response to the current Covid-19 health crisis, rest assured, you are not alone.  When we hear the words of social distancing, quarantine, and isolation it is normal to even feel more anxiety, worry, or fear.  Anxiety about illness and disease are quite common. Finding ways to cope better in stressful situations might take time, reflection, and some worthwhile effort.

This article contains tips and techniques, insight, and recommendations from the clinical staff at West End Outreach Services, the behavioral health clinic of Forks Community Hospital.

Keep in mind, everyone responds to stress differently.  Understanding what that stress might actually look like, and being mindful to what you are experiencing might be the first step to a healthy response.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) describes what the signs of stress might be during an infectious outbreak:

  • Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

Parents are advised to look for signs in their children’s behaviors. Changes to keep an eye out for might include:

  • Excessive crying or irritation in younger children
  • Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (for example, toileting accidents or bedwetting)
  • Excessive worry or sadness
  • Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
  • Irritability and “acting out” behaviors in teens
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration
  • Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
  • Unexplained headaches or body pain
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

The professionals at West End Outreach Services have been serving the community since 1976, and continue to provide support through COVID-19. Our staff reminds you:

  • If the signs of stress are present and interfering with daily life, there are many things you can do. It is helpful to pinpoint what has worked well for you in the past. Maybe it’s exercise or reading a good book. Knowing your strengths and then looking inward at what part of your life need more attention right now to counter the stress you are experiencing is a good starting point.
  • Break it down. Ask yourself what you are doing well emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally. Ask yourself what you are missing and what could you bring forward in your life to lower stress and help the situation.
  • Would it prove beneficial to stay on your exercise plan, to eat healthy and to monitor sugar, alcohol, nicotine or caffeine intake to see how those things might impact you? A walk through your neighborhood, down a forest trail, or on an ocean beach can reduce stress significantly for some.
  • Are you finding purpose in your day, addressing spiritual needs, and connecting to others?
  • Have you educated yourself on Covid-19? Is your anxiety based in actual understanding of the situation from reliable sources? Would it help to step back and take a break from information overload?
  • Are you able to find time each day to acknowledge your feelings, recognize why you are feeling these emotions, and perhaps communicate this with a trusted person in your life? Can you engage in activities that sooth your emotions and take your vision beyond the struggle? Can you see the light at the end of the tunnel? What are you thankful for today?
  • The CDC also advises people already receiving behavioral health services to continue working with their providers. WEOS has remained open for existing and new patients who might be feeling the need to reach out for help. The clinical staff of WEOS has put together some additional suggestions based on areas of expertise and counseling approaches.


Letting Go

In the recovery world we often coach folks towards learning to let go of unhealthy stress through the grace and courageous power of acceptance and through mindful reflection.  For this, there is one great tradition that is incredibly applicable to the issues we are facing while living in a world that has been disrupted by Covid-19.  Gaining acceptance and learning the skill of letting go can be quite healing to those who suffer, and both are reflected so well in the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Perhaps time spent reflecting on these words might prove valuable to those who feel overwhelmed or anxious.  Let this prayer signal a release that allows one to let go rather than to hold on to the stress they might be experiencing, to move forward in positive ways, and to continue to simply live one’s life effectively in the present moment.  (Michael Salsbury, WEOS SUD Program Coordinator)

Tara Huggins shares the idea to take advantage of the extra time we have at home with our kids while we practice social distancing. Kids love spending time with their parents, and you don’t have to be doing anything extravagant for it to mean the world to them. Set aside uninterrupted time each day to spend with your kids. Cook or bake together, eat meals together, play board games, work on a craft or color a picture, get down on the floor and play with toys together, read together, or talk to each other about interests, goals, or just about your day. You won’t regret the time you spend with your kids and they will remember it.

Talk about what’s going on (Char-el Montana)


Do Schedule a regular talk time to discuss world/local events, etc.

  • Instruct others that if they find themselves worrying or thinking too much about it outside of scheduled time, to tell self to wait for scheduled time and find something to replace the worry.
  • Start a journal to write questions or concerns that come up in between talk times

Do Focus on what is in our control individually, family, community, state, country, world

  • Remind about universal precautions+
  • Make your own hand sanitizer as a family
  • Remind others there are smart people working on it


Don’t Try and hide your own emotions from kids or family members

  • Model appropriate emotions and talk about them in scheduled discussion times
  • Positive regard for other’s emotions

Don’t Panic

  • Don’t forget about humor and having fun
  • Do Practice deep breathing together

Being prepared for typical reactions can help you to cope with stress during infectious disease outbreaks and allow you to find ways to take care of your behavioral health.

What to expect: Typical Reactions:  Anxiety, Fear or worry related to:

  • your own health status
  • the challenges of securing things you need, such as groceries and personal care items
  • time taken off from work in the potential loss of income and job security
  • uncertainty or frustration about how long you need to remain the situation, and uncertainty about the future
  • a desire to use alcohol or drugs to cope
  • loneliness associated with feeling cut off from the world and loved ones
  • anger if you think you are exposed to the disease because of others negligence
  • symptoms of depression, such as feelings of hopelessness, changes in appetite, or sleeping too little or too much
  • boredom and frustration because you may not be able to work or engage in regular day-to-day activities
  • concern about being able to effectively care for children or others in your care

These signs of stress are normal and vary among all people. In the wake of an infectious disease outbreak, is important to monitor your own physical and mental health. Know how to relieve the stress and know when to get help. You can manage and alleviate your stress by taking time to take care of yourself.

Keep things in perspective:

Set limits on how much time is been reading or watching news about the outbreak. You want to stay up-to-date on news of the outbreak, particularly if you have loved ones in places where many people have gotten sick. Make sure to take time away from news to focus on things in life there going well and that you can control.

Laura Fridley leaves you with this final thought, “Laura Fridley – Confucius actually said, ‘A wise person is led on a path of many windings.’  Times like these of rapid change and uncertainty can be difficult, like a path that leads you this way and that.  But if you are kind to yourself and those around you, an uncertain path can bring rewards.  Look for the good things and you will find them!  And, of course wash, Wash, WASH those hands.  😊”


For a printable PDF of this article click here.

March 20, 2020

Disclaimer: This Column is not intended as a diagnosis or recommended treatment of a specific condition. Answers are not a replacement for an individual medical evaluation. Individual health concerns should be evaluated by a licensed clinician.