Summary of Harvard Medical School webinar recording

Luana Marques, PhD discusses strategies for managing stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Points:

The threat of disease creates a fight-or-flight response in the brain – we are biologically wired for this response and it has served as a protective force in the past.  This may feel like: 

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweaty palms
  • Tense muscles
  • On edge

Most stress responses are acute, or short lived, but the stress of COVID-19 is now considered chronic, or long lasting.   The results of chronic stress can become the new “biological norm.”

Chronic stress can reduce immune function and trigger physical arousal, fatigue, sleep disturbances, avoidance, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, and grief.

There are strategies for coping with stress!   

It is important to engage in these strategies sooner rather than later and develop habits that promote wellness.

Social Support

  • There are many different types of social support – emotional support, feeling needed, asking for and giving advice/information, reassurance of self-worth
  • We need to be creative and find new ways of connecting with others.   Examples can include:
    • Having a lunch “date” with a friend through Zoom or Facetime
    • Calling someone you care about and talking about a shared, happy memory
    • Hugging a family member you are social distancing with


  • Finding moments of relaxation throughout the day can “pause” or “reset” the stress response
  • Setting an alarm as a reminder to take a moment to relax can be helpful
  • A 2 minute break every hour can be more beneficial than one long break during the day
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation – Such as shown in this YouTube video:

Healthy Habits – healthy habits increase resilience in the brain and are correlated with immune system strength

  • Changes to eating, sleep, and exercise habits can help (or harm) overall levels of stress.
  • Incorporate fruits and vegetables into diet as much as possible; try not to turn to sugar as comfort as this can cause metabolic shifts that trigger unpleasant feelings
  • Practice good sleep hygiene
    • Limit caffeine intake and screen time before bed
    • If in bed more than 20 minutes without being able to sleep, get up and do something relaxing
    • Be patient and kind to yourself – It may take time to re-adjust to normal sleep pattern
  • Focus on practical activities that can be done now such as organizing a closet, trying a new recipe, listening to music.   The key is bringing focus back to present moment
  • Maintain a normal schedule – Write down your schedule and include things like eating, sleeping, exercise, and relaxation activities.
  • Keep a journal – Journaling helps to slow down the brain and activates the “thinking brain” instead of emotional brain.
  • Humor – Laugh!   It helps to give yourself a break and activate the part of your brain that experiences joy even in difficult times.

Coping with virus related anxiety

  • The brain likes certainty, but right now we are facing a whole lot of UNcertainty
  • Follow appropriate World Health Organization/CDC  precautions related to social distancing and washing hands as best as you can.
  • Try to accept the uncertainty and focus on behavioral changes that can slow down the brain
  • Be flexible and realize that things may be done a little different than before the virus
  • Limit the amount of news you consume throughout the day – WHO recommends no more than 10 minutes 2 times per day.


Reference: Harvard Medical School (Producer). (2020, April 2). Coping with the stress of coronavirus [Video file]. Retrieved from