How experts say Utahns should manage the stress of coronavirus, earthquakes and isolation

Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to stories about the coronavirus and Wednesday’s earthquake in Utah.

The fear of being infected with the coronavirus — coupled with job losses, closed schools, shuttered churches, empty shelves and plummeting stocks — is stressful enough.

But then, on Wednesday, a large portion of the state was jolted awake by a 5.7 earthquake, one of the strongest many residents had ever experienced.

Just how much stress does the universe think we can handle?

We asked Benjamin Farmer, a marriage and family therapist in Centerville who also does school-based counseling, and Travis Mickelson, associate medical director of mental health integration for Intermountain Healthcare, about the best ways to cope when it seems like every day is another scene from a disaster movie.

Life has been pretty stressful lately, just how much worry and anxiety can humans handle?

“I have done a lot of research on resilience,” Farmer said. “ I have heard many incredible stories on surviving trauma, but the short answer is — we don’t know how they do it. Certain people definitely have a limit, but, at some point, everybody has a limit where they would break. Buying up all that toilet paper was about worrying about meeting basic needs but acting in ways that were beyond the normal level of coping.”

Added Mickelson. “We actually can be very strong and resilient, when exposed to certain events.” We are at our best, though, he said, when we are focused on the things that help boost our natural coping skills: sleeping well, maintaining an exercise routine, eating healthy and “continuing to feel like we are being helpful to ourselves, our family and society.”

What can people do to relieve some of the anxiety they might be experiencing?

“Concrete things like filling up a jug of water or buying a couple of cans of food can help,” Farmer said. “Taking clear, small steps to move in a direction where they can feel they have some control. Reaching out to others to ask how they are doing can help an anxious person cope. Having a support system in place, even if it’s only one or two people, is enough to alleviate anxiety. Reframing how they approach this virus, saying, ‘I am socially isolating to protect my family.’ Reframing can give people a sense of power to navigate that stress."

Take a cue from young children, Mickelson added. They always find a way to entertain themselves. “Most homes are filled with card games, board games and books to read.” Now is a good time for mom to pull out the baseball mitt and play catch. Or have dad make a favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe.

What should you do if you’re having a hard time sleeping?

“Sleep is tricky,” Farmer said. “You need to recognize this [virus] is a place we’ve never been before and it’s OK to have challenges. But it is important to maintain routines. Without going out to school and work, it is tempting to sleep in until 10. Don’t do that. The most important thing is to wake up at the same time every day. At bedtime, don’t watch TV and read news stories online. If you can’t fall asleep within 15 minutes, get up and do something else. Maintain a sleepy atmosphere; reserve the bed for sleeping. Also, exercise is super important. Climb stairs in your house, grab cans of soup for weight training, walk around.”

Said Mickelson: Stick to routine, avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed, and spend the hours before sleep doing activities that are calming and create a sense of safety, Worries interfere with sleep. So set aside time before you go to bed — maybe in the morning — to really focus on what is worrying you and how it can be solved.

What can parents do to help their children cope?

“Children ages 10 and below need physical touch, reassuring statements, and age-appropriate answers to their questions," Farmer said. "With teens, don’t just ask them how they are feeling (you might just get, ‘I’m fine’), but ask how this is affecting their friends, and they might open up.

Children look to adults as a source of truth, Mickelson said. “If we are anxious and irritable, that makes them anxious and irritable.” Parents should explain things in a developmentally appropriate way, but it should be “truthful and based on good information.” Limit exposure to news and media.

“That goes for all of us," he said. "We don’t need to listen 24/7.”