Health and Medicine

How stressed should we feel right now?

Carolina professor Jon Abramowitz discusses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our daily lives – including how isolation and social distancing affect our routines.

A man holds his hands on his head while stressed.

Jon Abramowitz is a professor of clinical psychology in Carolina’s College of Arts & Sciences and an expert in anxiety disorders.

He spoke with UNC News about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our daily lives – including how isolation and social distancing affect our routines, and which feelings are normal and which feelings should cause concern.

Question: How do we develop personal routines?

 A lot of factors go into developing personal routines. A big one is personal preference – we build routines around things we like to do. Typically these also involve things we have done in the past. Humans are creatures of habit, and we like to feel comfortable. Our routines help us feel like we know what’s going to happen next and they help us minimize distress.

What goes wrong when they are disrupted?

The worst is usually that a person will feel stressed. One way to think about stress is as a response to changes in our routine. Maybe you have a new job, maybe you have to stay home because of a virus. These can also be positive. Maybe you just got married or you have a new baby. Even positive things can get us out of a routine and that can be stressful.

How can we adapt?

The best thing to do is lean into it. Change is normal, and feeling stressed about change is normal… and not harmful. Hopefully, the changes we are experiencing currently are temporary. These changes we’re under currently also serve a purpose: to keep ourselves and others safe. There’s comfort in knowing that a lot of other people are experiencing this, too. You are not alone.

Is feeling stressed right now normal?

Yes. It is completely normal to feel stressed and anxious at this time. Most people are feeling that way for one reason or another.

Although anxiety is uncomfortable, most people manage just fine. In fact, people who are more introverted say they’re rather happy not to have to socialize so much these days.  But not everyone is doing fine. Some people are feeling lonely without social interactions. Others are scared about their health and safety, or their financial situation.

When should we be concerned about our feelings and reactions?

While it’s normal to feel stressed to some extent, it becomes a problem if it begins to take a physical toll. For example, you’re losing a lot of sleep or you’ve lost your appetite. Extreme worry can cause problems with pain because your muscles can chronically tense up or you’re not taking care of yourself in other ways. These are all signs to be concerned about. Chronic catastrophic thinking, like, “I can’t stand this” or “This is the end of the world,” is also a sign of stress becoming more severe.

The best thing people can do is to try to continue your routine as much as possible using safe social distancing and cleaning practices. Try to eat healthy, get a good night’s sleep, and exercise. Seek out a mental health professional if you’re noticing that stress and anxiety are beginning to interfere with your physical or emotional well-being.