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Coping with added stress during the coronavirus outbreak

A carpenter cuts plywood to cover a closed store where artwork in support of people affected by the coronavirus already covers an adjacent panel in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

There’s no doubt that the coronavirus outbreak is affecting everyone in some way, and many people are experiencing added stress.

11-year-old Natalie is spreading kindness with chalk in Snohomish County

Dr. Jurgen Unutzer, a psychiatrist, professor at the University of Washington, and director of the UW Medicine Advancing Integrated Mental Health Solutions (AIMS) Center, joined KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show to talk about how stress and anxiety might show itself and what we can do to cope.

“I would say that, actually, stress and anxiety are normal human reactions during a time like this, and anxiety can be pretty helpful,” Unutzer said. “It keeps you on your toes. It makes you aware of the risks around you and be extra careful.”

Unutzer has seen a lot of people who are really rising to the challenge, finding good ways to cope with the additional stress in our lives. He said stress is not necessarily a bad thing.

Dr. Unutzer reiterated some of the coping mechanisms you may have heard already, including limiting your intake of news if that’s a stressor for you.

“It’s always hard to tell somebody who’s a journalist in the media that people should stop watching the new,” Unutzer recognized. “But I think there is a lot there. We’re all processing this in a different way.”

For those who are in a panic mode, reading or watching one more thing may make it worse. For others, the news can be reassuring, even normalizing.

“Stress is normal during a time like this, but for some of us, stress and anxiety can really become overwhelming,” Unutzer said. “And then it comes with other feelings of frustration and anger and, for some of us, grief. And the longer this wears on, you can get overwhelmed and really depressed. Then you’re not functioning well at work or at home.”

Whether you’re feeling low levels of stress or are so stressed you’re unable to function, Unutzer had a few suggestions for everyone.

“The first thing I would say is, just remember, this is stressful for all of us,” he said. “Let’s make sure we support each other while keeping each other safe. I think that we’re all social and emotional human beings. We need to keep physical distance right now, six feet or more, I think that’s actually very important. But that doesn’t mean we need to have social distance.”

Call or text your family and friends, stay connected, reach out, keep a routine. Don’t let the small, annoying things pile up, but rather solve the little problems as they happen, Unutzer said.

If you’re more than stressed out, having trouble sleeping or concentrating, Unutzer recommends getting help.

“There’s a lot of resources that are available now, and most of us in the behavioral health business, we’re still here,” he said. “We might have switched from seeing people in clinics to doing a lot of tele-health care, but we’re still here.”

Anxiety and stress can show up in many different forms, from an increased heart rate to stomach aches, unexplained aches and pain, problems sleeping or staying asleep, or the inability to turn off your mind. Some people also find that they’re more irritable when stressed, but we all manifest stress in different ways, Unutzer said.

We will get through this together

The one thing he warned about during periods of high stress is that people often cope by drinking or taking drugs.

“That’s a pretty high risk situation right now,” Unutzer said. ” … It might help us with anxiety in the short run, but it could come with a really high price down the road.”

In King County, you can call Crisis Connections at 866-427-4747 if you need help. The hotline is staffed 24/7.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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