How to deal with stress: the most important thing you can do

Updated on 9 July 2020

Surveys by King's College London/Ipsos MORI, the Royal Society for Public Health, the British Red Cross and other organisations show that coronavirus is having an impact on the wellbeing of people in the UK, causing anxiety, loneliness, depression and sleep problems.

It may seem obvious but one of the ways the coronavirus outbreak affects us is by increasing stress. Whilst stress is a perfectly normal, even healthy, reaction in the body and mind to some type of threat (it prepares you for ‘fight or flight’), when facing ongoing threats and challenges, it becomes something quite different.

There are also different types of stress. When you prepare for an important exam or meeting, the stress is short-term and reaches an end point. Compare that with being stuck in a traffic jam and not knowing why – you feel frustrated, trapped and unsure when you’ll get to your destination.

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While you're at home more than usual, that feeling of being restricted or trapped can be very hard to bear and reminds us just how much we take our freedoms for granted. Many other worries may soon mushroom and completely fill your mind.

We sometimes say that someone has ‘lost their mind’ and, in some ways, they may have, if it is invaded by worries about things they can’t possibly control. Keeping all of your concerns about coronavirus – about your and your family’s health, how you’ll get food and other supplies, how your finances might be affected – under control is exhausting and, at some point, you might start to drown in them. But that will get you nowhere.


Focus on what you can do

Dr Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, suggests there is something simple that you can do: “...the single most useful thing anyone can do in any type of crisis – Corona-related or otherwise – is to: focus on what’s in your control.

When we focus on something that we can do, which has some sort of end, we feel more effective and less trapped – even if it doesn’t always go right. Studies from Sweden on what helps people recover from stress and burnout suggest that being helped to sleep better and feel more effective is what makes the therapy work.

So, if you’re stuck in a situation that is stressful, whether at home or work, make sure you focus on the small things you can do that make a difference. That might be doing some chores, cooking some delicious food, building a playlist or doing something nice for someone else. Acts of kindness and generosity will help you as much as the person you are kind to.

The really important thing is to not measure the size of what you do; it is completing the activity that will give you some feeling of achievement. When you focus on that, it is really powerful. A study of those fleeing war zones and persecution found that this activity of focusing on some part of their life where they had control gave them hope and helped them to cope better, even though they may have lost their homes and members of their family.

Watch this short YouTube video by Dr Russ Harris about how to face COVID-19.


Don’t drown in worries

On Good Thinking, free apps like Be Mindful and My Possible Self can help guide you in this process. If you feel so overwhelmed that it’s hard to focus, you might find our cognitive fitness and mental resilience app MyCognition useful. After assessing how your brain is working (e.g. how good your attention and memory are) then playing the personalised video game, AquaSnap, you can improve your key ability to concentrate, solve problems, make good decisions, self-control and perform effectively.

The better you can focus on what you can control, the more clearly you can take in that not everything is out of control. If there are tough things to face or sort out, you’ll be in better shape to take on those challenges. And you’ll be in a stronger position to support your family, friends and wider community over the coming weeks and months.

As Dr Harris says, you can’t control coronavirus itself or how your government responds. You can’t even control how you feel about the current situation. So, step away from the bigger picture for a moment and make a note of something you can do, a behaviour that you can be in control of. It might just throw you a line and rescue you from drowning in worries.


Use the Good Thinking self-assessment tool to determine how stressed you are and get access to useful apps and other resources.

Check out Good Thinking's advice about how to deal with the uncertainty of lockdown and listen to our podcasts with Professor Neil Greenberg (stress and trauma), Dr Tom Coffey (new ways of working), Edward Breen (music and wellbeing), Janet Wingrove (mindfulness) and Tracey Taylor (OCD).