Stress levels are on the rise in homes across the nation as Americans continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting all aspects of our lives. Mental health provider Ginger reported that 88% of workers surveyed experienced moderate to extreme stress between the beginning of March and the middle of April 2020. That was just the beginning. Almost six months later, there seems to be no end in sight. And while lessening stress is integral to the job, the growth of remote work means reducing stress at home is just as important.
Stress is a normal response to both positive and negative life changes. In many cases, it requires physical, mental, and emotional adjustments. Common sources of negative stress can range from something as minor as a work conflict to as serious as the death of a loved one. However, people rarely experience stressful situations in all areas of life simultaneously. Right now, most Americans are feeling the effects of the pandemic as they ripple through relationships, careers, and communities.
As the challenges stack up, a proactive look at strategies for reducing stress at home is essential. By doing so, people can effectively manage and improve their mental health and the quality of our lives—even during a pandemic.
Identify Your Stressors
The first step toward reducing stress at home is to identify the cause(s) of your stress. One common source is when you’re overwhelmed. That’s the feeling you have when so many things are going wrong you can’t even list them all. Well, now is the time to break it down and actually make a list. When your stress is a monolithic force, it is difficult to tackle. Divide and conquer is a good strategy.
For example, you may say you’re stressed out because you’re working at home. But, what is it specifically that is stressful about working at home? Chances are it’s not everything. Maybe it’s the distractions or interruptions. Or maybe you’re feeling isolated or lonely. Bottom line: identify exactly what is bothering you.
Appraise Your Stressors
Once you have a list of your specific stressors, it’s time to appraise them. Dr. Alan Chu, Chair of Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology at the University of Wisconsin and Certified Mental Performance Consultant suggests that how we evaluate stressful events can influence our stress levels. This empowering idea comes from the transaction theory of stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). It’s highly effective in showing us we can change our experience of a situation by changing how we perceive it.
The theory cites three types of primary appraisals or ways of looking at a stressful situation:
- Threat appraisal (least effective): The belief that we do not have enough personal resources to deal with current events and are in danger of harm or loss.
- Centrality appraisal: The belief that current events are significant to our life and important to our personal wellbeing.
- Challenge appraisal (most effective): The belief that we have enough resources to deal with current events and can achieve personal gains or growth when we motivate ourselves to overcome them.
If you are identifying a stressor as a threat, adjust your viewpoint to see the stressor as a challenge. Dr. Chu advocates cognitive restructuring techniques, such as self-talk. This simply means generating alternative thoughts about your stressor instead of your immediate negative thoughts. Try to identify your strengths and the assets that you can use to deal with them. Then, replace your negative thoughts with alternative thoughts whenever you experience a stressor. You know you are on the right track when these alternative thoughts lead to feelings of relief and less stress.
Control the Controllable
How much control we have in the situation is a type of secondary appraisal that the transaction theory of stress introduces:
- Uncontrollable (least effective)
- Controllable by others (e.g., doctors, government officials)
- Controllable by self (most effective)
Dr. Chu also adds:
“Much of the added stress we perceive are due to uncontrollable conditions, or conditions that are controllable by others that we may not always trust. In order to manage stress, we need to identify what we can control in order to enhance the controllability of the situation, and then follow through to control the controllable.”
Practical Strategies for Reducing Stress at Home
Currently, several sources of stress are caused by or worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. These include stress caused by fear of getting the disease, stress from working at home, and stress from watching the news, among others. Below are examples of how to use appraisal and control strategies to practically address these and other common sources of stress.
Fear Regarding Your Health and the Health of Others
One of the greatest fears is that we or a loved one will get the disease. Dr. Chu reminds us, “A healthy dose of fear will keep us away from dangerous behaviors. Fear will help us make conscious decisions about going out and interacting with people in public.”
However, if you feel you are exceeding that healthy dose of fear, try to practice ‘controlling the controllable’ as introduced above. Dr. Chu reiterates:
“We should recognize the things that we can’t control (e.g., what people say, whether they wear a mask) and things that we can (e.g., wearing a mask, what time and where to get groceries). There are always things within our control, as soon as we identify them, that can reduce fear.”
New remote workers may experience stress due to unfamiliarity of working from home and feeling less competent. Trying to overcompensate at work in addition to addressing other home-based causes of stress can leave you feeling frazzled. Kate Sullivan, Consulting Psychologist at Constellation Careers, also advises “controlling the controllable” by setting the following boundaries:
- Create a “commute” for yourself. Take a walk around the block and listen to a favorite album or podcast, then settle into work. Do the same when it’s time to leave for the day. This can help you get in the right headspace to work and to leave work. In addition, you can get some fresh air and exercise, which are also clinically proven to help reduce stress.
- Set a hard stop to work for the day. Make sure that you’re not working 24/7 with no rest or breaks for your brain to decompress. Setting a hard stop and adhering to it can help you manage your stress, refresh, and relax.
If you are experiencing other remote work issues such as loneliness and isolation, you can also employ the alternative thinking strategy introduced above.
For example, if your loneliness arises as a thought or feeling, replace it with, “Yes, I’m lonely, but so is my mother.” Then, give her a call to see how she’s doing. This thought effectively changes the appraisal of your stressor from one of a threat to one of a challenge. If the alternative thought is effective, you will feel better. If not, try another one.
Watching the News Stress
The pandemic has many eyes glued to screens waiting for the latest news and infection numbers. “While we can’t control what people post on social media or talk about on the news, we can control what we do,” advises Dr. Chu. “We can set boundaries as to when and how long we watch, and we can decide what we pay attention to.”
Sullivan sets out some specific control strategies if this an area where you struggle:
- Do not view news right before bed or first thing in the morning! Scheduling time to read newsfeeds mid-morning or mid-afternoon allows you to take a break from work and stay up-to-date. It also gives you time to process so you’re not mulling over the day’s news as you’re trying to get to sleep or starting your day with a barrage of stress-inducing headlines.
- Restrict your news-reading time to only 15-20 minutes a session with no more than 2 sessions per day. That’s enough to get a good idea of what’s happening in the world, but not get sucked into a doom-scrolling spiral of negativity.
Spending Too Much Time With Loved Ones or Roommates
Before the pandemic, many complained about not having enough family time because of a busy and hectic lifestyle. This idea has changed since the pandemic. Today, many are feeling the effects of too much forced togetherness. Many experts are even expecting a spike in the divorce rate. Clearly, too much time in close quarters—combined with boredom—can put a true strain on relationships.
This is an area where developing alternative appraisals of the situation can be very helpful in reducing stress at home. Remind yourself that this is actually a rare opportunity to get to know your loved ones and spend quality time together. Soon enough, life will take you in different directions.
Practical coping strategies include the following suggested by Sullivan:
- Spend time apart. Each of you can and should be doing something away from the other(s) for half an hour to an hour a day to get a little breathing room and avoid having tensions flare. If possible, take separate outdoor walks, ensuring you can each have ‘alone time’ in your home, and ‘alone time’ getting fresh air and exercise. Time in nature is proven to reduce stress and help us regroup, doubling your stress-reduction benefit.
- Institute an ‘invisibility cloak’ rule. Each person selects an article of clothing that they only wear when they’re truly overwhelmed. This can be a cardigan, hat, or another item that signals ‘alone time.’ When that item goes on, no one can acknowledge that you exist—you’re invisible. No eye contact, talking, no nothing! This is an easy technique for even kids to understand. Oftentimes, they think of it more as a game than as ‘Mommy needs some space.’
Uncertainty About Finances
With over 10% unemployment nationwide and millions facing layoffs, a certain amount of concern regarding family finances is understandable. However, too much will increase anxiety and place increased strain on family relationships. As with health concerns, a combination of creating alternative assessments and implementing practical control strategies are most effective for reducing stress at home.
Sullivan suggests scheduling a financial checkup with yourself by going over what you spent last month. Using that information, prioritize your monthly spending from ‘essential’ to ‘nice to have.’ “If you plan based on the previous month while working from the lowest expected income, you’ll be able to better handle the uncertainty and feel better about your financial standing.”
Alternative thoughts might include the reminder that the situation is difficult but temporary. Or maybe, despite the struggle, you are still in a much better position than many others around the world. Another way to adjust your perspective is to remember a prior time you went through a similar or worse situation and emerged better for it.
Reducing Stress Is the Key
Regardless of your current difficulties, the promise of the transaction theory of stress is that ultimately, you can be successful reducing stress at home despite your circumstances. By identifying stressors, appraising and then reframing, and implementing practical strategies provide relief, we are empowered to improve our own mental health. This proactive approach will help you to better support the mental health of both yourself and your loved ones in this difficult time.
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