Ways we cope with stress during COVID-19

We’ve found big and small ways to cope in quarantine.
Dog On Dock
Photo by Nikki Hansen
Matt Oboikovitz and his dog, Oscar, share a quiet moment on a Lake Wingra pier.

The spread of COVID-19 has forced us to protect our physical health using extraordinary measures. At the same time, stress, grief and fear have crept into our everyday lives, making our mental health just as vulnerable. We’ve found big and small ways to cope in quarantine, whether it be taking the dog for a walk, baking bread, biking with the family or even exchanging vows in a backyard wedding, like one Madison couple did. But just as the first large COVID-19 curve began to bend in the U.S., we were also reminded of the stress Black Americans have faced their entire lives, and for many generations before.

We have endured stress as unprecedented as the coronavirus itself. Around the world, people have lost loved ones, jobs and sleep. We lost out on memories made at weddings, graduations and anniversaries. We’ve lost a little bit of our sanity trying to keep our families safe and fed. We’ve lost track of the scientific studies, the statistics, the action plans and the partisan opinions.

Ultimately, many of us have lost a little bit of ourselves in an attempt to weather the storm of COVID-19. “The first thing to realize — and something expressed beautifully by Viktor Frankl [an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor] — is that life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose,” says Pelin Kesebir, a scientist for the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Kesebir was a panelist on an April webinar about cultivating purpose in uncertain times. Presented by CHM and Healthy Minds Innovations (the external nonprofit affiliated with CHM), the free webinar also featured CHM and HMI founder Richard Davidson. It attracted viewers from around the world — from Brazil, Mexico, Toronto and more.

Purpose, the panelists explained, is one of the center’s four pillars of well-being, along with awareness, connection and insight, which are all learnable. “Purpose actually allows us to infuse even our most mundane everyday activities with a sense of what’s important to us so that each interaction, every email, every dirty dish, even every dirty diaper actually could be greater opportunities to sort of express and be guided by this greater sense of meaning,” HMI trainer and program specialist Stephanie Wagner said during the webinar.

In response to the challenges we have faced and will continue to encounter, finding a sense of purpose can help us in meaningful ways, Davidson noted.

“One of the really important findings from the scientific research is that having a strong sense of purpose is related to resilience,” Davidson said in the webinar. “People who have a direction in their life, people who report that their lives are something more than just themselves — those people show, on robust objective measures, greater resilience. They have an increased capacity to recover from adversity.”

There are a million different pathways that can lead to well-being. Physical distancing has forced us to get creative, but we’ve found new ways to connect with each other and our families through walking the dog, cooking, baking, exercising, enjoying nature and much more.

We will grow from this experience, Kesebir says. “We should never waste an opportunity to learn from a crisis,” she says. “One way to grow from this would be working on our own virtues — cultivating some virtues such as hope or courage or compassion. If we found in ourselves means of cultivating these virtues, these wonderful human qualities during this difficult time, it would not only benefit us now, but it also would benefit us in the future. It would be a great outcome to come from all of this.” –AB

Editor’s Note: The stories below illustrate small ways that some people were able to find calm and comfort in quarantine. Most of the following stories were written before the death of George Floyd and do not focus on the stress that Black Americans deal with on a daily basis, nor the stress associated with an ongoing global civil rights movement. However, we were able to include a guest column written by April Kigeya, who provides her insight into stress specifically related to racial injustice that she deals with as a Black woman in Madison. Michael Johnson also shares daily stressors he and his family face.

Also, we would like to acknowledge that stress and anxiety can be serious mental health issues. If you or someone you know is dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts or behaviors, a few resources include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, or National Alliance on Mental Illness Dane County’s list of mental health resources you can find at namidanecounty.org/resources.

Click the images below to read more about different ways to cope with stress.

A Letter to a Dog

Maggie with Sully

Photo by Nikki Hansen

Maggie Ginsberg with Sully

Dogs we love on Instagram

Dog Grid

Getting in touch with nature during the coronavirus

person hiking in a green area

Life at home with kids during quarantine

dad with kids playing on a porch

Photo by Amandalynn Jones

Middleton dad Alan Natachu (left) takes some time to slow down by journaling on the porch while son Dmitri, 15, reads and daughter Astraea, 5, plays with toys.

The stress relief (and added stress) of outdoor activity

Michael Johnson

Photo by Larry Chua/Photo courtesy of Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson (left) and his family go on walks and bike rides multiple times a week. Pictured right (left to right) Micayla, Micaiya and son Michael Johnson Jr.

The Jacques Pépin in us all

scones with dalgona coffee

Photo by Nikki Hansen

A wedding in quarantine

Zoom Wedding

Photo courtesy of Kasia Janus

Kasia Janus and Jason Iverson

Bake the stress away


Photo by Sunny Frantz

Your 2020 stress-baking horoscope

Madison’s must-have cookies

Photo courtesy of Curtis & Cake by Monica O’Connell

Baker Monica O'Connell, founder of Curtis & Cake in Fort Atkinson, specializes in one-of-a-kind wedding cakes, but she makes a mean cookie, too.

A different kind of stress


Photo courtesy of April Kigeya

April Kigeya (second from right) at a downtown demonstration in late May along with Brandice Hatcher (far left), Maia Pearson (second from left in back), Mahalia Pearson (second from left in front) and Joe Maldonado (far right).

Editor’s note: Blinding light of privilege

Black Lives Matter Protest

Photo by Beth Skogen

Photo by Beth Skogen

Heinen: Stress unrelievedhanging on by a thin rope