Coronavirus: How to Cope with the Stress of Social Distancing

We talked to a professional about how to deal with the very real and very valid stress you may feel

This post was originally published on March 13, 2020.

It’s pretty scary to be out and about in the world right now. With the spread of the Coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) happening at a rapid pace, and something close to mass hysteria causing people to frantically stock up with toilet paper at an apocalyptic rate, it feels a lot like the end of the world. The latest news? Officials have declared it a global health emergency. School districts across Canada announced that public schools would be suspended at least through April. In both Canada and the United States, select post-secondary schools have announced that classes will become remote for the remainder of the semester. And both north and south of the border, employees in certain sectors are being advised (or explicitly told) to work from home for the foreseeable future; all in the name of social distancing.

ICYMI, “social distancing” is a term used by epidemiologists to refer to a conscious effort to reduce close contact between people, in the hopes of stopping or limiting community transmission of the virus. It’s a preventative measure, and an important one. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t—and shouldn’t—feel stressed about everything that’s going on.

“I think, partly, there’s the uncertainty of things [that’s prompting people to have these reactions], says Dr. Saunia Ahmad, a clinical psychologist and director of the Toronto Psychology Clinic. “There’s a lack of clarity about what are the exact symptoms and what to do if someone thinks they have it. There are so many different information sources, rumours going around and a lot of uncertainty. And uncertainty often breeds anxiety.”

Ahmad says that specifically around working from home and the idea of social distancing is something she and her co-workers have seen firsthand at their clinic. “Generally speaking, a lot of clients are saying they’ve started working from home, but they are starting to feel anxious and uncertain about what to expect from that,” she says. Here’s how you can manage if you’re feeling anxious, too.

First of all, know that you’re not overreacting

Any anxiety *you* have is completely justified and rational. For Dr. Ahmad, there are two different things at play when it comes to stress over working from home and social distancing: 1) the independent stress that just comes from the challenges of working at home, and 2) the stress that comes from the unfamiliarity of social distancing itself.

“Often people are unsure about whether or not they can maintain a distance and how someone else will respond when they do,” she says. For example, Dr. Ahmad points to a general uncertainty people have over knowing whether or not they should still be shaking hands. Will people be fearful if you try? Will they feel snubbed if you don’t? A simple solution is to begin an interaction by saying, “I’m being cautious right now, so I won’t shake your hand, but it’s great to see you.”

And when it comes to working from home in general, while it can be great to have more flexibility and cut down on a commute, Ahmad says that this new set up can make it easier to lose the natural structure that comes from working in a physical workplace; with a clear start and end time, breaks and expectations about what you’ll accomplish in a day. And while in the age of the gig economy, many people are used to implementing those structures themselves (what up, freelancers!) and being effective, not everyone is. “All of a sudden, entire companies are asking all of their associates to work from home,” Ahmad says. “Some of these people have never done that before [and] it is stressful because they haven’t gone through the process of learning how to institute their own structure.” So know that any feelings of uncertainty that come up around this are totally normal—and there are ways to set yourself up for success.

Clear communication is important

The first step in mitigating stress around COVID-19-related isolation is making sure that your communication is super clear—especially if you’re working from home—something that pretty much all of us need to work to be better at. “Clear communication about expectations [is key],” Ahmad says. “Employees need to be very clear about, ‘OK, what is it that I’m expected to do? How quickly do I need to get back to someone?'” While every job is different, Ahmad stresses it’s important to get clarity from your manager about their expectations. And, in return, be clear with them about what you can accomplish. “It’s also very important to reach out and indicate if one is having struggles with working from home or if they’re stressed out, so they don’t feel so alone,” she says. “Clear, direct communication about the workload as well as communication about challenges can really help reduce stress.” Which is honestly just great advice for *anytime.*

Set those boundaries!

Another way to help with stress? Make sure that you’re setting both physical and personal boundaries. This means setting up a workspace within your home where you can (literally or figuratively) close the door, and those living with you know that you’re working and this is your time to focus.  But, because it can’t all be about work, it’s crucial to take breaks, Ahmad says. “It’s so easy now that you’re working from home to not take a break or continue working through lunch,” she says. “So learning to take breaks and then learning when the work day is over and switching to your personal life [is important].” And setting a start and end time will help motivate you to not drag the day—and your work—out, which inevitably leads to work bleeding into your personal time.

Self-care should be top of mind

This is more important than ever. “Taking precautions to eat well and sleep well [is important] because if you don’t that could cause you to fall ill as well,” Ahmed cautions. And, as much as it may seem like the world is a garbage fire right now, Ahmad says it’s imperative to look beyond what’s happening online and in the media. “Try to find pleasurable things to do outside of your work and outside of tracking the virus in the news cycle,” she says. This could be reading for pleasure, lighting your fave candle, going for a walk or a run, or any hobbies that you really enjoy. Whatever self care may look like to you.

So, in other words, you have *full* permission put on that face mask and binge Elite (#QuarantineAndChill is trending), and even more permission to look at those kitten memes!

Follow the right resources

And, finally, when it comes to managing stress, Ahmad has one last tip: “Just make sure that you’re not trying to get information from just friends or third party sources,” she says. “Go to your government’s website,” she advises. “There are a lot of resources online right now where there’s proper information about the level of risk and the type of precautions people need to take.” Even Ahmad is susceptible to the hysteria around toilet paper and stocking up on groceries. “I literally went to the grocery store this morning and saw that there’s so much that’s gone from the shelves. We’re not being told by the government to stock up and everyone’s just following what others are doing and that just causes mass panic and stress.”

Which no one needs more of right now. So take a deep breath and repeat after me: We’re going to be OK. And until then, take care of yourself.