Published on 04/20/20

Combat stress, boost well-being while sheltering in place

By Anna Scheyett

There is a lot of conversation lately about stress and mental well-being, particularly during this time of COVID-19 and sheltering in place. The coronavirus is bringing huge health challenges to our communities and impacts everything from jobs to families. Many things feel like they’re out of our control, and the stress keeps building. 

While we can’t control a virus or the economy, we can take care of our emotions and health and become more resilient against stress.

What is stress?

Stress happens when a person has a demand made on them that is more than they think their current resources can handle. Stress happens all the time — it’s normal. For example, you might feel stress before starting a project you’ve never done before.

In typical situations, when a person feels stressed, they problem solve or find additional resources. A little stress pushes us to grow. But overwhelming stress can become toxic. 

It’s important to realize that your stress is a normal response to an immensely abnormal situation. It is not a weakness on your part. Even in this unique and frightening situation, we can still engage in stress management. 

Know the signs and symptoms of toxic stress

The first step is recognizing when you or a loved one has stress levels that are getting toxic. The following can be signs that someone’s stress is at a dangerous level:

  • Changes in physical health including trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, headaches, stomach distress, excessive fatigue, or muscle cramps and aches.
  • Changes in behaviors like not doing usual activities (e.g., church, meeting friends), not taking care of appearances, missing meetings, or increased drinking or drug use.
  • Changes in thinking such as trouble concentrating, irritability or negative thoughts that won’t go away: “I’m a failure,” “It’s impossible to make it,” “The world would be better off without me.”
  • Changes in emotions like loss of enthusiasm, anxiety, depression, hopelessness or not feeling close to loved ones.

If you are experiencing some of these signs, it is important to act now and find ways to make positive changes to combat stress. 

Ways to combat stress

Take care of yourself physically. We all know to do this, but it’s important to commit to it. Eat three good meals a day that include fruits and vegetables. Make sure to limit your caffeine intake and drink at least eight glasses of water a day. 

You also need to incorporate physical activity:  It provides an outlet for the extra anxious energy and stimulates the parts of the brain that keep our stress response in check, as well as those needed for good decision-making and problem-solving. Find something physical that you enjoy — walking, biking, yoga, whatever works for you — and do it.

Intentionally limit news and social media. Avoid becoming overwhelmed by the difficult news around us. Plan ahead and set priorities and don’t be afraid to say “no” to something that isn’t a priority. Set realistic daily goals and then pay attention and be positive when you meet them.

Catch yourself if you fall into all-or-nothing thinking (“I always make the wrong decision,” or “I never can get anyone to help me”) and replace those thoughts by remembering times you have solved complex problems and been successful and received support.

Maintain a strong social network for your emotional well-being. Family, friends and community groups are some of the best protectors against toxic stress. But you have to reach out to people and talk to them in order for them to support you.

It is OK to tell someone you trust that you’re struggling. Talking to your family doctor or faith leader can also be helpful. If you are feeling depressed or anxious and it is keeping you from functioning, find a counselor to help. If you don’t know how to find one, contact the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225. It is free and confidential.

Remember, while we can’t control what is happening in the world, we can control how we respond to it. We can keep ourselves as resilient and as healthy as possible, so that we can take care of ourselves and our loved ones. You’re important — the world needs you and you deserve to take care of yourself.

For more on handling toxic stress, refer to UGA Extension’s “Stress Less, Live More” guide and other resources at

Anna Scheyett is the dean of the UGA School of Social Work.