Do You Have Control During a Pandemic?

Worldwide pandemic pretty much outranks many things when it comes to stress. Where the government issues shelter-in-place orders and requests (or requires) you wear a facemask when out in public. Where panicked masses hoard months-worth of food and supplies, resulting in grocery store shelves being laid bare. It’s straight out of a dystopian novel. Yet, here we are.

How can we manage when it seems our world is going crazy? Let’s talk about stress in general and some strategies on how to cope.


Stress is our response to a stressor – a real or perceived threat. In our current pandemic, our stressors would be the COVID-19 disease, a lack of food and supplies, a loss of income due to mandated closures, having everyone in close quarters 24/7, protecting elderly parents, etc.

The stress, then, is our response to each of these stressors. We may have learned a typical reaction to stress is “fight” or “flight,” but “freeze” is also a response to stress. Our response may present itself as denial, paranoia, insomnia, overeating, irritability, nail-biting, and the list goes on. Usually we stay within the norm of our typical stress response. If we tend to live in denial of stressors, that will likely be our go-to, now, as well.

Let’s look at some coping strategies that can translate into other stressful areas of your life. You can put them into practice now and continue them after this pandemic comes to an end. First, we’ll look at our frame of mind and our thought patterns. How can we move from a sense of hopelessness to feeling in control?


When I attended my first birthing class, our instructor told us the most important piece of information we would need is to know that the birthing experience, with all of its pain, would come to an end. She told us if we don’t remember anything else, to remember that and focus on that one thing alone. It really is true. If we can remind ourselves this pandemic will come to an end, we will have hope. All pandemics historically have reached an end, so we can have the assurance this one will, too. Let’s keep that in perspective when we start to feel overwhelmed. People need hope to get them through trying times so you may need to remind yourself this, too, will come to an end. The first strategy, then, is to change your thought pattern and language to “when” this pandemic comes to an end.


As a general course, people like to have control. We like to know what to expect and want to be the driver of our lives. That’s not always possible. What we can do is identify what we can control. Make a list of all of the things you are worried or concerned about and divvy them up into two columns – one for What I Can Control and the other for What Is Outside of My Control. Some examples:

What I Can ControlWhat Is Outside of My Control
My responseIf and what food is available in stores
Where I goWhich businesses are open
What preparations I need to make for my businessCDC guidelines changing
What news I watch/listen toGovernment restrictions imposed on us
What words come out of my mouthWhen the restrictions lift
How I spend my new free time 
How much I exercise 
Which projects around the house get done 
Which friends I connect with online 

The second strategy is to focus on the things you can control and acknowledge it’s a waste of mental and emotional energy to fixate on the things we can’t. Sometimes we need a physical representation of letting go of the things we cannot control. Maybe that means writing a list of all of the things that concern us and burning it as a representation of what is out of our control. This one takes repeated practice to remind ourselves what is within our control and putting our energies into those areas.

Personally, when I face this, I take a deep breath and ask, “Can I control this?” If yes, I make sure I’m being productive with my efforts. If no, I either remind myself it’s a waste of my time, or I ask, “How can I gain control to make positive change?” For example, as I watch some extreme examples of freedoms around the country getting curtailed, I can write letters to my politicians. I can join an activist group. I move myself from a position of helplessness and agitation or worry to a position of taking action.

Once we identify what we can control, we can add to that list each day. Pick the top three you can control today and focus on those. One of mine is shopping for others. I like to feel helpful and productive, so I find out the needs of my friends/family who are at risk for shopping, then I go and get supplies for them. By putting time and energy into service, I’m no longer fixating on the frustrating things that are out of my control. Focusing on others and serving them, helps us shift our focus from our own problems and we’re less likely to ruminate on them.

Coming up we’ll look at the impact of sleep hygiene and diet on stress, and I’ll suggest some relaxation techniques.

Sheri Orr, MA, LMHC, LPC,  a clinical psychotherapist, practices in Arizona and New York, helping people get unstuck – moving toward a place of healing, growth and wholeness.

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