16:00 PM

COVID-19 and Stress: what you’re feeling is normal

Kelly Trowbridge, PhD, mindfulness educator, Center for Professional Well-Being

Jennifer Bickel, MD, neurologist and COVID employee wellness officer


We have been supporting employees at Children’s Mercy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the organization we have heard the same question come up time and time again, “I should be doing fine. What is wrong with me? Why do I feel this way?”

I am doing my usual and I am struggling

With stay-at-home restrictions in place, it is perceived that we should be less busy since many people are working from home, there are fewer activities to attend and more time to rest. This could not be further from the truth, which is why so many people we speak with are confused about why they are feeling exhausted.

What many are finding out is that their plate is full, even without all the normal activities because managing the day-to-day responsibilities has not change. Many people we work with are juggling high stress jobs, chronic illness, ageing parents, and children of all ages. Even though these can be stressful circumstances, we gladly undertake these duties as part of living a rewarding and full life.

We have reminded the people we have talked with to kindly recall the struggle and fatigue of “the usual” is normal and that many other people feel this too.

My typical coping skills don’t seem to be working

We have been stunned by the skills many of our employees share when they come in and explain what isn’t working. Remind yourself of the truth of your stresses and your environments and your relationships. All three of these factors are impacted by COVID-19 and, while hopefully temporary, it no doubt can tax coping skills. It’s important to remember that typically, only one or two of these areas is impacted at a time, not all. So, it is likely your coping skills are intact, but also understandably, somedays at capacity.

In addition to coping, some people miss the usual sense of achievement or reward. Dr. Judson Brewer talks about our brains being wired for reward-based learning. In healthcare, our brains are rewarded when we care for others. Those working from home or with a low patient census might also be missing that very normal sense of reward the brain is used to receiving when caring for others. Be aware of when you go on autopilot anytime you are caring for another – patient, family, friend. Be as present as possible to your own acts of caring and compassion so that your brain experiences the rewarding feeling of kindness and compassion it is used to getting.

Keep compassion simple. A text. A note. A mental or spiritual wish that someone be well. The key here is to do it with intention and to be present when you are doing it - really feel the compassion you are sending another.

I am reactive

Habitual ways of handling bosses, partners, children or work often return under stress. These patterns often show up in moments of reactivity such as an irritable outburst, a silent withdrawal, or a sarcastic jab. Reactivity may also look like overeating or binge-watching TV. When we are stressed, we often respond in these familiar ways quickly without thinking. We may think we have dealt with these patterns once and for all and now here they are again. This is no surprise, so go easy on yourself! Patterns like this are often deeply engrained in our brains and emerge as easy and familiar ways of coping when you’re at capacity.

So, what can you do? The first step is recognizing these patterns. Just noticing may help you from heading into a downward spiral which is often where these thoughts and behaviors can lead to guilt, blame, or worry.

Also, fact check your thoughts – avoid interpreting situations. Just because your boss did not answer your call does not mean your company is closing. Your call simply was not answered. When a coworker asks if you miss working out that person is asking if you miss your routine, not questioning your appearance or diet or how your clothes fit. We often automatically personalize and add subjective meaning to situations creating hardship and confusion for ourselves and others. The good news is we can avoid adding to this fire by noticing our thoughts and not throwing a match on it.

I want things back to normal

For some of us what we once considered routine and standard in our work, families, friend communities, and just everyday ways of being is a new normal. It is normal to notice a resistance to change. We have noticed among our employees, resistance may be subtle, so it gets a little confusing. It may feel like a general dissatisfaction you can’t quite put your finger on or just a longing to do work or be with people the way you once did. It might feel like not wanting to do activities at all or wanting to just do something repetitive and familiar and known. You just don’t want this.

As contradictory as it may sound, one antidote to wanting it different is to pay attention to what is right in front of you. If remote meetings are wearing you out or you’re missing the personal connection, focus on what is available to you. Notice what can you learn about your colleagues and their environments and how can you connect with them in this new way.

So, what is wrong with me?

Nothing. Your life is full, and your coping system is maxed, which is to be expected right now. Notice your habits of thinking and behavior without fueling the downward spiral. When you need getting back on track - reach out to a friend, coworker, or family to get perspective and support.


Learn more about Well-being resources at Children's Mercy