COVID-19 and the Diathesis-Stress Model: How to Relieve Stress under Extraordinary Circumstances

March 31, 2020


Everyone experiences periods of increased stress in their life. These may be mild and recurrent, such as the stress involved in working or raising children, or they may be more severe and unique, like the stress of losing a job or getting a divorce. When we encounter a stressful situation, we can usually get through it without any lasting repercussions. However, extreme or prolonged periods of distress can sometimes have negative effects on our mental well-being.

The diathesis-stress model, which is sometimes also called the stress-diathesis model, is a psychological framework for understanding how stress affects our mental health. According to this model, every person has a certain amount of vulnerability toward depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems and conditions. Although some people do not struggle with these issues under normal circumstances, extreme distress can sometimes cause symptoms to develop where none existed before. And for people who do struggle with a mental health condition under normal circumstances, additional distress can worsen their symptoms and make management of their condition more difficult.

As the public health crisis created by the COVID-19 disease continues, it’s important that everyone be prepared for the ways this additional stress might affect their health. Even individuals with no preexisting behavioral health conditions may find themselves feeling more worried, anxious or depressed over the coming weeks. Fortunately, we can all lessen the negative effects of this particular stressor by taking precautions to boost our emotional resilience.

To learn more about what to expect and how to manage behavioral health issues during this difficult time, we spoke with Margot Everitt, one of our Team Leads for school-based services in Marion County. Below, Margot explains how a person’s health might be impacted and what they can do to relieve stress during this or any other extraordinary situation.

Explaining the Mental Health Risks Posed by COVID-19


As a Team Lead for school-based services, Margot Everitt, LMFT, supervises therapists and life skills specialists who work with children and teens in the Indianapolis school system.

As stated above, most people should expect to experience some amount of increased distress due to the ongoing situation with coronavirus disease. Individuals who have an existing mood or anxiety disorder are the most likely to experience worsened symptoms as a result of this added stress. While symptoms of increased distress will vary from person to person, Margot anticipates that they will follow two main trends.

First, a person might experience reduced well-being right now, as we are living through the crisis day-to-day. “When there is a stressful situation like what we’re going through right now, if you already have anxiety, for instance, you’ll likely feel increased symptoms,” Margot says. “When people are worried about getting their basic needs met, that’s when we see things like depression and anxiety come into play.”

These effects could be more pronounced if a person’s employment status has changed, if their normal daily routines have been greatly interrupted, or if they spend a lot of time following the situation’s development. “You could see increased symptoms if you’ve lost a job, if you’re watching the news, or if you’re not able to do things that help you relieve that stress,” Margot says.

Second, a person might also experience increased distress when they must transition back to normal life at the end of this crisis. For some people, this stress could be the result of employment changes and financial difficulties. For others, it could occur due to the strain of returning to old habits and routines, as Margot explains:

“For example, some kids have a lot of anxiety and struggle with going to school because of that anxiety. My concern is that this whole situation will make the transition back to school much more difficult. Right now, they’re getting used to being in their homes and in their ‘cocoon,’ so I think they’re going to have a harder time transitioning back to school. In the same way, getting back into the workforce may be difficult for adults who aren’t working or have been laid off.”

What You Can Do to Guard Against Distress


Once we understand how additional distress could impact our mental health, it’s important that we take measures to counteract these negative effects. One of the best ways to manage distress is to continue normal wellness behaviors like exercising frequently, eating nutritious food and maintaining a regular sleep schedule. These behaviors have been proven to boost resilience and improve mental health, so continuing them during times of crisis is critical.

Since many of us are currently spending a great deal of time at home, we might find it difficult to continue our regular wellness routines. However, we can work within existing constraints to continue our wellness behaviors to the best of our abilities, as Margot explains:

“For sleep, you should keep a consistent sleep schedule and have a good bedtime routine. Do something that relaxes you before going to bed, and get up at the same time you always get up. If you’re staying up all night and sleeping late into the day, that’s going to change your body chemistry, and then how are you going to function when you have to go back to your regular hours? For exercise, any kind of movement is beneficial, and there are things you can do to modify your normal exercise routine. Take a walk, or if you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe walking outside, then walk around your house. Get a milk jug and lift it as a weight, or do jumping jacks. For nutrition, practice healthy eating and try not to snack all day. Have dedicated times for eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. You should do all the same things you were doing before and figure out how to modify those behaviors for the present circumstances.”

In addition to these wellness behaviors, Margot emphasizes the importance of building structure into our day even if we aren’t leaving the house for school or work. “It’s very important for kids and even adults to create structure, although it’s going to look different than normal. They need to get up, take a shower, eat breakfast—whatever their routine is—even if they don’t leave the house. I think people will feel a lot better if they keep a structured day,” she says.

Finally, it’s a good idea to limit your exposure to anxiety-inducing information and news about the crisis. While it’s important to stay informed of new developments, spending excessive amounts of time tracking the situation will likely increase your level of distress. “I think people have to be really careful,” Margot explains. “There’s so much information out there that’s just going to increase anxiety and paranoia. Right now, I don’t watch the news unless it’s something like Good Morning America, and when I get on social media, if I start seeing too many things about the coronavirus, I get off. Some people might need to limit or eliminate these things if they’re causing too much stress.”

In times of heightened anxiety and distress, we must also be sure to continue regular appointments with behavioral health professionals. Although Cummins BHS is limiting face-to-face sessions during the COVID-19 crisis, our providers are still conducting sessions via telephone and video conference. Call us at (888) 714-1927 Ext. 1500 if you’d like to schedule an appointment, or dial extension 1501 if you are experiencing a mental health crisis and need to speak with someone immediately.


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