This tipsheet covers understanding common reactions in yourself and others during the COVID-19 pandemic, what you can do to look after yourself and manage feelings of stress, anxiety, or distress associated with COVID-19, and helpful resources and support.
COVID-19: common reactions
As the COVID-19 pandemic and its far-reaching implications continue to unfold globally and in our community, it’s normal for people to experience a wide range of thoughts, feelings and reactions including:
- Feeling stressed or overwhelmed
- Anxiety, worry, or fear
- Racing thoughts
- Sadness, tearfulness, loss of interest in usual enjoyable activities
- Physical symptoms, such as increased heart rate, stomach upset, fatigue, or other uncomfortable sensations
- Frustration, irritability, or anger
- Restlessness or agitation
- Feeling helpless
- Difficulty concentrating or sleeping
- Feeling disconnected from others
- Apprehension about going to public spaces
- Trouble relaxing
These experiences are all understandable in the face of this significant challenge. There has been loss of life, rapid changes to our way of life (e.g., study, work, social gatherings), and disrupted plans due to travel restrictions and social (physical) distancing measures in our efforts to slow the spread of transmission. People are naturally concerned for their own and their loved ones’ health and safety. There is still much uncertainty.
It’s important to recognise the seriousness of the public health challenge facing our community, and be mindful that reacting from a place of panic and fear is usually unhelpful, especially in the long-term. Looking after our wellbeing in times like this can help to reduce stress, and is crucial in enabling us to still take calm and effective action in the midst of this global crisis.
Strategies to cope with stress, anxiety or distress
When many things feel uncertain or out of our control, one of the most effective ways we can manage stress and anxiety is to focus on the actions that are in our control. Here are some ways you can take intentional steps to look after your physical and emotional wellbeing during this challenging time:
Learn how to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. The Australian Department of Health has recommended important actions we can all take to protect against infection and prevent the virus from spreading including practising good hygiene, self-isolation, and social (physical) distancing.
Acknowledge your feelings. Whatever you are feeling right now, know that it’s okay to feel that way. Allow yourself time to notice and express what you’re feeling. This could be through journalling, talking with others, or channelling your emotions into something creative (e.g., drawing, painting, poetry, music). Mindfulness meditation exercises can help us stay grounded in the midst of an emotional storm. You can learn how to witness and let thoughts and feelings come and go in their own time, without getting overwhelmed by them.
Maintain your day-to-day activities and a routine as much as possible. Having a healthy routine can have a positive impact on your thoughts and feelings. Go back to basics: eating healthy meals, physical exercise (e.g., walking, stretching, running, cycling), getting enough sleep, and doing things you enjoy. Even if you’re in self-quarantine, or working from home, there are many ways to develop new routines and stay healthy.
During this time of change, it’s natural for our minds to think of all the usual activities we may not be able to do at the moment. Make a conscious shift to focus on the activities we are still able to do, or those that we may have more opportunity to do if we’re at home more often. Some ideas could be to:
- Keep learning and maintaining your study
- Read a book
- Listen to a podcast
- Try out a new hobby or skill (e.g., cook a new recipe, play an instrument, learn a language, learn how to sew, gardening).
Stay connected. Receiving support and care from others has a powerful effect on helping us cope with challenges. Spending time with supportive family and friends can bring a sense of comfort and stability. Talking through our concerns, thoughts, and feelings with others can also help us find helpful ways of thinking about or dealing with a stressful situation.
We know that it can be hard to connect sometimes, especially if you’re new to Melbourne or living alone, especially at this time. A great way to connect with other students from home is via The Social Connection, where you can meet new people in small groups over Zoom!
Remember that physical distancing does not need to mean social disconnection. There are many ways we can use technology to stay connected, and both give and receive support (remotely). You could:
- Call, text, or video-chat with friends and family
- Share quick and easy recipes
- Start a virtual book or movie club
- Schedule a workout together over video chat
- Join an online group or peer forum.
Contribute. Showing care towards friends, family, or vulnerable people in our community can be all the more important during times like this. It can foster a sense of hope, purpose, and meaning. Some ideas can be to:
- Send someone you care about a message of encouragement or affirmation
- Cook, pack and deliver a meal to someone in your neighbourhood
- Donate to a cause.
Keep things in perspective. In a situation that’s uncertain, it’s natural to have many ‘what if?’ questions in our minds. In the absence of information, our anxious mind will often fill in the blanks with worst case scenarios, which can leave us feeling overwhelmed, helpless, or vulnerable. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to shift your thinking from catastrophizing to a more helpful mindset:
- What are the things within my control?
- Am I overestimating the likelihood of the worst-case scenario?
- What strategies have helped me cope with challenging situations in the past that will serve me well during this time?
- What is a small helpful or positive action that I can take now?
Seek accurate information. Finding credible sources you can trust is important to avoid the fear and panic that can be caused by misinformation. Follow sources like the Australian Department of Health, or the Australian Department of Education, Skills, and Employment for up-to-date fact sheets, including advice and support specifically for international students.
Set limits around news and social media. It’s understandable to want to keep informed and prepared. At the same time, constantly reading, watching, or listening to upsetting media coverage can unnecessarily intensify worry and agitation. When you get the urge to check updates, see if you can pause, notice the urge, delay acting on the urge, and let it pass without judgement. Schedule a specific time to check in with the news instead. It’s also okay to take breaks from conversations with others about COVID-19 and suggest talking about other topics.
Stay up to date with university advice and support. Check the University’s student support website for important information, including course-specific updates and other advice for affected students.
Take care of your body and spirit
This is an extraordinarily trying time, and all the tried-and-true stress management strategies apply, such as eating healthy meals, getting plenty of sleep, and meditating. Beyond that, here are some tips for practicing self-care in the face of the unique disruptions caused by the coronavirus.
- Be kind to yourself. Go easy on yourself if you’re experiencing more depression or anxiety than usual. You’re not alone in your struggles.
- Maintain a routine as best you can. Even if you’re stuck at home, try to stick to your regular sleep, school, meal, or work schedule. This can help you maintain a sense of normalcy.
- Take time out for activities you enjoy. Read a good book, watch a comedy, play a fun board or video game, make something—whether it’s a new recipe, a craft, or a piece of art. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it takes you out of your worries.
- Get out in nature, if possible. Sunshine and fresh air will do you good. Even a walk around your neighborhood can make you feel better. Just be sure to avoid crowds, keep your distance from people you encounter, and obey restrictions in your area.
- Find ways to exercise. Staying active will help you release anxiety, relieve stress, and manage your mood. While gym and group classes may be out, you can still cycle, hike, or walk. Or if you’re stuck at home, look online for exercise videos you can follow. There are many things you can do even without equipment, such as yoga and exercises that use your own bodyweight.
- Avoid self-medicating. Be careful that you’re not using alcohol or other substances to deal with anxiety or depression. If you tend to overdo it in the best of times, it may be a good idea to avoid for now.
- Take up a relaxation practice. When stressors throw your nervous system out of balance, relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can bring you back into a state of equilibrium. Regular practice delivers the greatest benefits, so see if you can set aside even a little time every day.
Help others (it will make you feel better)
At times like this, it’s easy to get caught up in your own fears and concerns. But amid all the stories of people fighting over wearing face masks or lining up outside gun stores to arm themselves, it’s important to take a breath and remember that we’re all in this together. As a quote circulating in Italy reminds us: “We’re standing far apart now so we can embrace each other later.”
It’s no coincidence that those who focus on others in need and support their communities, especially during times of crises, tend to be happier and healthier than those who act selfishly. Helping others not only makes a difference to your community—and even to the wider world at this time—it can also support your own mental health and well-being. Much of the anguish accompanying this pandemic stems from feeling powerless. Doing kind and helpful acts for others can help you regain a sense of control over your life—as well as adding meaning and purpose.
Follow guidelines for preventing the spread of the virus. Even if you’re not in a high-risk group, staying at home, washing your hands frequently, and avoiding contact with others can help save the lives of the most vulnerable in your community and prevent overburdening the healthcare system.
Reach out to others in need. If you know people in your community who are isolated—particularly the elderly or disabled—you can still offer support. Perhaps an older neighbor needs help with groceries or fulfilling a prescription? You can always leave packages on their doorstep to avoid direct contact. Or maybe they just need to hear a friendly, reassuring voice over the phone. Many local social media groups can help put you in touch with vulnerable people in your area.
Donate to food banks. Hoarding has reduced supplies to food banks in many areas, while unemployment and economic difficulties have greatly increased demand. You can help older adults, low-income families, and others in need by donating food or cash.
Be a calming influence. If friends or loved ones are panicking, try to help them gain some perspective on the situation. Instead of scaremongering or giving credence to false rumors, refer them to reputable news sources. Being a positive, uplifting influence in these anxious times can help you feel better about your own situation too.
Be kind to others. An infectious disease is not connected to any racial or ethnic group, so speak up if you hear negative stereotypes that only promote prejudice. With the right outlook and intentions, we can all ensure that kindness and charity spread throughout our communities even faster than this virus.
Helpful resources and support
Tipsheets and online resources
- Australian Psychological Society (APS): Information and resources including ‘Tips for coping with coronavirus anxiety’, ‘Maintaining your mental health during social isolation’, ‘Loneliness and social isolation in the time of COVID-19’
- Beyond Blue: Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak
- Black Dog Institute: Coronavirus: Resources for anxiety and stress
- Orygen Youth Health: Self-care during the COVID-19 outbreak
- Dr Russ Harris, physician and psychotherapist: How to respond effectively to the coronavirus (using the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy)
- WHO: Mental health and psychosocial considerations during COVID-19 outbreak
- Ted article: “I’m incredibly anxious about coronavirus”
- Study Melbourne: resources and support for international students affected by COVID-19
- Smiling Mind – free mindfulness meditation app to help you look after your mental health and manage stress and daily challenges.
- Headspace – free “Weathering the Storm” program available to help support the global community through this time including a curated list of calming meditations, help with sleep, and at-home workouts or movement exercises.
- thedesk – free online program for Australian tertiary students to improve their wellbeing and study more effectively. There are four modules on how to stay calm, be more productive, and improve your wellbeing and relationships.
Check out the full list of recommended mental health and wellbeing resources on our website, including links to mental health information, self-help programs, and apps.
- Pan, K.-Y., Kok, A. A. L., Eikelenboom, M., Horsfall, M., Jörg, F., Luteijn, R. A., Rhebergen, D., Oppen, P. van, Giltay, E. J., & Penninx, B. W. J. H. (2021). The mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people with and without depressive, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorders: A longitudinal study of three Dutch case-control cohorts. The Lancet Psychiatry, 8(2), 121–129. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30491-0
- Mertens, G., Gerritsen, L., Duijndam, S., Salemink, E., & Engelhard, I. M. (2020). Fear of the coronavirus (COVID-19): Predictors in an online study conducted in March 2020. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 74, 102258. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102258
- Millroth, P., & Frey, R. (2021). Fear and anxiety in the face of COVID-19: Negative dispositions towards risk and uncertainty as vulnerability factors. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 83, 102454. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2021.102454
- Twenge, J. M., McAllister, C., & Joiner, T. E. (2021). Anxiety and depressive symptoms in U.S. Census Bureau assessments of adults: Trends from 2019 to fall 2020 across demographic groups. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 83, 102455. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2021.102455
- Aylett, E., Small, N., & Bower, P. (2018). Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice – a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Health Services Research, 18(1), 559. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12913-018-3313-5
- Kandola, A., Vancampfort, D., Herring, M., Rebar, A., Hallgren, M., Firth, J., & Stubbs, B. (2018). Moving to Beat Anxiety: Epidemiology and Therapeutic Issues with Physical Activity for Anxiety. Current Psychiatry Reports, 20(8), 63. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-018-0923-x