How to Cope with Coronavirus Stress

March 13, 2020

Experts in student support and mental health give advice to the Duke community.

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Photo by Megan Mendenhall / Duke University

-By Amanda Solliday

It’s a stressful time. Here’s what three Duke experts have to say about adjusting to life during the coronavirus outbreak. 

This text is based on interviews between Duke Global and: 

  • Dr. Beth-Anne Blue, Psychologist and Assistant Director at Duke Personal Assistance Service 
  • Dr. Robin Gurwitch, Psychologist and Professor at Duke University Medical Center
  • Amanda Rozycki, Student Support Coordinator at DukeReach 

What are some of the top questions people have when they contact you?

Dr. Beth-Anne Blue: “How do I control my anxiety?” People who are reaching out now typically have a history of anxiety. 

Don’t jump to the worst-case scenario. This is true for human beings in general – when we lack accurate information, we go to the worst-case scenario. 

Be mindful of not letting your thoughts and feelings become "facts." Just because I feel like the world is going to end with this virus, doesn’t mean that it’s actually going to happen. You need to take it day-by-day.

Amanda Rozycki: They're wanting a clear answer to “Should I be traveling?” We're encouraging travelers to register with the Duke Global Travel Registry, for both domestic and international travel. That way, the university can track people in the Duke community just in case advisories might change. The situation is changing so fast, every day. We won’t know how to help unless we know where folks are.

What are some of the most important things for people to consider in this current situation?

Dr. Beth-Anne Blue: Number one: Take care of yourself. And number two: How are you managing exposure to information? 

Just because it’s out there, doesn’t mean it’s accurate and that you need to look at it. People commenting and people reacting – it just becomes a snowball effect, so I really encourage people to monitor vigilantly what they expose themselves to as far as news coverage and social media. 

Dr. Robin Gurwitch: There’s this really great resource from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network for families about what they can do to help their children cope and how parents can think about reducing their own stress. The network felt that it was important to have something available so that parents did not have to scan multiple sources or come across materials that may not be accurate.

It also provides some helpline numbers for people who are feeling overly stressed or overwhelmed or feel like they need to talk to someone because they're not in a good place.

Amanda Rozycki: Students can call Counseling and Psychological Services at 919-660-1000. 

If students are overwhelmed and don't know where to go, they can always call DukeReach. Our office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If there's a more immediate concern after those hours (that is not a 9-1-1 type of emergency), we also have a student affairs dean on call at 984-287-0300.

To help combat stress, students can also access free online guided meditations, as long as you have a Duke Net ID. 

How do you think people should balance getting accurate information and not becoming overwhelmed? 

Dr. Beth-Anne Blue: Don’t have the TV on in the background. If there’s something that happens that’s critical for all of us to know, it will get to you. Whether someone calls you or it’s an email from the university president, someone will let you know that information. It’s not up to you to stare at the TV the entire day waiting for this big break. Limit your news sources to one particular outlet that’s giving reputable information. 

Dr. Robin Gurwitch: When you hear conflicting messages, that can sometimes increase anxieties and worries. So, when there is a public health emergency, like COVID-19, one of the most important things that we talk about from a public health perspective is making sure that messages are consistent. Inconsistent messaging makes people wonder, “What do I not know?" or "What are they not telling me?”

Rather than flip channels or look through multiple things on social media, think about one trusted source. My personal opinion is that with this situation, the most trusted source we have right now is the Centers for Disease Control. We really need to rely on our scientists to keep us apprised on what's happening from a public health perspective and what we should do. Because this virus, honestly doesn't have an agenda and doesn't take sides. We need to listen to what is the science telling us. 

What advice do you have for dealing with uncertainty?

Dr. Beth-Anne Blue: Stay present. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We don’t know what news will be disseminated in the future. We can plan, but things might change tomorrow, and we’re going to need to react and be flexible.

Stay rooted and grounded. To use an analogy: The trees are going to sway, but they’re not going to break. We need to make sure that we’re swaying with the trees, but we’re not going to break.

Dr. Robin Gurwitch: For students and others, this type of situation makes it difficult to maintain connections with friends. I think that is important, particularly if we dispersed for spring break, for example, and now we can't come back and be together again, that we can find a way to maintain connections. 

Make sure that you stay in contact with your friends and relatives, either through social media, phone calls or FaceTime. Right now, it’s hard when you're working on social distancing. These two things aren't always compatible, but maintaining social connections is so important.

If you’re a college student who is at home with family, ask yourself: “What can I do to help make sure my family is prepared?” To contribute, go to the store to get supplies or prepare dinners or take over pet care. If you have elderly neighbors, see if you can help them, too, without increasing their risk of exposure. For example, you may offer to walk their dog or offer to do their grocery shopping, leaving these on their doorsteps.

What additional advice do you have for caregivers? 

Dr. Beth-Anne Blue: Recognize who is vulnerable in this situation. Are you caring for children or the elderly? Do whatever health officials say to do for vulnerable populations – keep your kids at home if that’s recommendation. Follow those rules and keep in mind that it’s the best you can do. You’re doing everything you can as a caregiver. 

Self-care is so important. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself, as well. Implement those things you do to take care of your mental health in general, whether it’s yoga or meditation.

Dr. Robin Gurwitch: There was a study after the Boston Marathon bombing where the researchers looked at the differences between parents who tried to shield their young children from what happened and parents who actually sat down and talked about what happened. The “shielded” children had more worries and more anxieties. 

Children will hear about it, so get out in front of it. Start by asking what they’ve heard and then say, “I want you to know you can ask me anything, and I'll answer it.” These conversations around tough topics lay the groundwork for having open communication and a strong relationship down the road about many different topics. 

On a different note, think about materials for activities that you’ll do in case you’re quarantined or must stay away from large groups. Think about what helps you relax, whether it’s drawing, sewing, reading books, playing board games or even shooting hoops in your own yard. If you know you’re going to be with family members for an extended period of time, think about how you might be able to take some independent time and take breaks for individual time. 

How should parents approach a conversation about the outbreak when talking with children?

Dr. Beth-Anne Blue: This is a unique opportunity for parents to model how to respond to world-wide incidents like this that are potentially stressful and anxiety-provoking. In other words, for people that have children, we must monitor appropriate behavior for them, because if parents are anxious or “hysterical” their children will respond in a similar fashion. 

For example, not unlike the election three years ago, despite what our reactions were, it is important to remember we are providing an example of what it looks like to respond and guide our children through national (or international) crises. How do you want your kids to respond? What are you telling them? Think about how we keep them calm, which are often the same things we should be doing to keep ourselves calm. 

Dr. Robin Gurwitch: I think it's also important for students, faculty and staff to make sure that they are talking to other adults about concerns rather than talking to children about your distress. We need to make sure that we're not using our children, or even our teenagers, as sounding boards for our distress. We need to model calm, but we also acknowledge that we don't know everything and here's what we can do. 

These conversations are incredibly important, because if we don't have them, then a child or a teenager may either assume that you don't really know or that it’s so scary that we can't even put it into words. And then, unfortunately many times the information that they've cobbled together is much worse than what's really happening. Let them know that you are going to keep checking available information and keep them up to date. Remind them of what is being done in your community, the country, around the world and especially in your family. As we are all a bit more anxious than normal, extra patience is important for all of us. 

What else should the Duke community keep in mind when thinking about coronavirus and mental health?

Amanda Rozycki: Being a student at Duke can be stressful; classes are stressful. And right now, students are just finishing midterms and are hoping for a break. If people are having to cancel plans, that can be overwhelming. 

If you are not experiencing a concern, but know a student who is, you can submit a DukeReach report for them. You just provide the name and contact information for the person and describe the general concern, and then somebody from our office will reach out to that person and see how to best help them. 

Dr. Beth-Anne Blue: Remember the basics, too. People forget that. Eat healthy, avoid alcohol and caffeine, get rest and get exercise.

Dr. Robin Gurwitch: This is an extremely fluid situation. We have to recognize that it will change. But it's also important we take a break from it – truly take a break from it. Go for a walk, read a book or watch a movie. Try journaling or yoga. This gives us that opportunity to clear our minds and reset. 

Recognize that each of us, even in the same family, may approach this situation a little differently, so think about how we can support each other and how to reach out and get the extra help and resources we may need now, as well as down the road.

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