Stress in 2020: 9 ways to protect your mental health

2020 has been stressful. 

In fact, a recent study by the American Psychological Association says people are reporting higher stress levels this year than at any time since the 2008 recession.

  • 70% of adults say the economy is a significant source of stress.
  • 71% of people of color experience high stress levels around getting coronavirus.
  • 70% of parents say basic needs, such as access to food and housing are a significant source of stress.

For many people, these feelings of anxiety and uncertainty aren’t likely to subside anytime soon. Still, there are proactive steps everyone can take to protect their mental health, says Dr. Bryan W. Heckman, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Meharry Medical College.

“The stressors people are facing now are very real and very different,” says Dr. Heckman. “For some, it’s financial hardship related to losing a job or unanticipated childcare costs. For others, it’s figuring out how to continue treatment for chronic medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, or kidney disease. Everything looks different now, and it’s important to take the time to identify what’s causing you stress — and formulate a strategy to address it.” 

9 ways to manage stress and protect your mental health

1. Stay informed

“We’re all facing uncertainty, and much of that revolves around COVID-19,” says Dr. Heckman. “You can remove some of that uncertainty and keep yourself safer by reviewing and applying risk mitigation best practices.”

Find reliable COVID-19 resources at:

2. Moderate your media exposure

“It’s wise to stay informed, but it’s also a good idea to moderate exposure to all types of media, including social media,” says Dr. Heckman. “Be careful of oversaturation, look for balanced stories, take the time to fact check, and permit yourself to take a break when you’re feeling overwhelmed.”

For information on mental health and social media, click here.

3. Ask for or offer help with telehealth

“The increase in telehealth services has been a silver lining for many during COVID-19 because they can receive care without going to a physical office,” says Dr. Heckman. “But for some, telehealth may be viewed as stressful. If you’re not technologically savvy, take some extra time to understand how to schedule or attend a virtual appointment, and recognize it will get easier with practice, especially if you’re someone who has multiple healthcare appointments to manage each week.”

  • If you’re having trouble with telehealth, call your insurance or healthcare provider and ask if someone can walk you through the process.
  • If you’re comfortable with technology, consider reaching out to friends or family members who may be struggling to ask if they need help. If you can’t provide them with the support they need, you may be able to contact someone from a provider’s office who can. Sometimes, just being there for support and offering a sympathetic ear can be helpful. 

For tips on how to prepare for a telehealth visit, click here.

4. Set a schedule

“Establishing some level of routine and schedule helps, especially with children,” says Dr. Heckman. 

  • On weekdays, establish a set time for meals, so you’re not adding the additional stress of feeding different family members at different times. 
  • On weekends, have breakfast as a family followed by an outdoor activity.

5. Keep setting goals and rewards

“In stressful times, we often forget to set goals or reward ourselves for achieving our goals,” says Dr. Heckman. “Working toward a goal is healthy for our minds and bodies as it gives us a sense of accomplishment that we may be missing right now.”

  • If your child plays a sport, ask them what skill they want to develop. Even if they can’t play on a team right now, you can work with them on that skill a few minutes every few days.
  • If your partner wants to run a 5K, encourage them to find a virtual race, sign up, and start training.
  • If you have a list of books you want to read, pick one, and set a reasonable date to finish it. Devote 10 minutes to reading each day.

6. Focus on the positive

Studies show that gratitude makes people happy and helps get them through difficult times,” says Dr. Judith Overton, a psychiatrist and medical director for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Try writing down or saying one thing you’re grateful for each day.”

Dr. Heckman suggests turning that positive outlook to the future as well. 

“As the pandemic goes on, it’s important to have things to be excited about,” he says. “We all need short-, middle- and long-term activities, so every day feels different.”

  • A short-term activity could be cooking your favorite meal for dinner.
  • A middle-term event could be planning to visit a new local park this weekend. 
  • A long-term activity could be planning a virtual or drive-by holiday party. 

The activities don’t have to be elaborate; they need to be achievable and enjoyable.

7. Make time for self care

“It’s important to stay on a healthy self-care trajectory, especially with sleep hygiene, exercise, and eating healthy,” says Dr. Heckman. “Now is also a good time to consider other forms of self-care to manage stress.”

While it’s not always thought of as self care, talking to friends and family can benefit everyone.

8. Watch out for unhealthy coping strategies

“In these difficult times, be careful not to fall into an unhealthy pattern of alcohol or substance use,” says Dr. Heckman. “We also need to be on the lookout for more subtle unhealthy coping strategies like unhealthy eating or a lack of physical activity. Keeping a log of activity and nutrition can help raise awareness and increase goal setting.”

9. Be aware of domestic violence and other serious situations

“Since the pandemic started, the rates of domestic violence have risen dramatically,” says Dr. Heckman. “People are confined to their homes more, and that can lead to dangerous physical situations or increased mental health issues. Be sure you have the resources you need to identify signs of domestic violence and get help if you or a loved one needs it.” 

For more information on domestic violence, click here.
For more information on getting help for mental illness, click here.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.

Filed under: Mind & Body

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).