Strategies for when you feel stretched too thin

UCLA psychologist Denise Chavira, PhD, shares three strategies to build resilience in the face of stress from being stretched too thin

For many of us, self-isolation has not led to time to experiment with recipes, read more books, or try out new hobbies or exercise routines. Many of us are busier than ever struggling to work in new ways, care for children out of school, and make ends meet by filing for unemployment or looking for work. These demands on time place greater strains on essential workers who are trying to juggle their work at a grocery store, hospital or delivery service, their own and family’s safety, and their responsibilities at home.

Thankfully, there are things we can do when we feel stretched too thin. In this segment of the COVID Care Package, we highlight three time-tested strategies that can help people be resilient in the face of such stress. Our hope is that these skills will not only help you survive, but thrive in these challenging times.

Strategy 1: Add more structure to your Life

The pandemic has disrupted our everyday routines. Whether we live alone and are getting bored or depressed, or leaving the house for essential jobs, we all can benefit from adding more structure to our home and work lives to make our days a little more predictable and balanced.

  • Keep a regular routine for you and your family. Routines are not just habits we get into – they also help us maintain our physical and emotional health. Even in these unusual circumstances, it’s important to keep regular bedtimes and meal times and carve out times to exercise and step outdoors.
  • Clearly define responsibilities. If you live with others, decide who is doing what task and when, and set up a timeline for this. For example, who is in charge of buying groceries? Cooking meals? Cleaning up after dinner? These things may seem like small issues, but frustration, conflict and chaos can emerge when responsibilities are not clearly defined.
  • Spend quality time with the people with whom you live Even if you live with others, it’s all too common for people to get wrapped up with work, chores and their own interests and then not interact with those at home. So bring joy and calm to your home; sit down together for one meal a day, watch a movie together or set up a game night. Gather the family for a FaceTime or Zoom date with relatives or friends.
  • Set boundaries at home and reserve some time for yourself. When possible, try to set boundaries at home by establishing what times of day you will focus on your family, chores and the job. If you find that work is seeping into all hours of your life, draw up some specific limits if you can. For example, you may decide, “I won’t respond to emails after 6 p.m. unless there is an emergency.” If you are working in the gig economy, you might say, “I will only accept jobs on the app between noon and 8 p.m.” To make sure work doesn’t take over your at-home time completely, you might protect at least one 24-hour period during the weekend to focus on family, health and loved ones. It’s also important to schedule time to relax or do something that makes you feel good.

On your own: Create a list of activities that bring you joy and relaxation

Strategy 2: Get in touch with your values

When we’re stressed out and just trying to make it through a hectic day, it’s normal to forget why we are doing all these things. In other words, we lose touch with our values. Values give meaning to our lives. They are different from goals, which are specific tasks we want to accomplish or milestones we want to achieve.

For example, say you are taking a class at a local community college. You are determined to get an “A” in the class. That’s a goal. But you have set that goal for a reason. For example, maybe you value education because it will lead to a good job that will help you better provide for your family. When a person stays in touch with their values, it motivates them to keep working toward their goals and helps them bounce back after setbacks.

Getting in touch with our values can help improve our emotional health in two key ways. First, it can help us connect a sense of purpose with our day-to-day tasks. Second, it can remind us of the important things in our life that we may be neglecting.

On your own: Assess your values and confirm that your values are being prioritized.

Strategy 3: Practice self-compassion

In these unusual circumstances, just keeping our head above water is an accomplishment. But it’s only human for us to be critical about ourselves for not being able to get more done. The idea that we should be able to do it all sometimes can be motivating, but it usually just makes us feel like we are falling short.

For example, being able to keep up with essential work tasks and also put food on the table every night for her children is a huge accomplishment for a working mom. But it’s common for working moms to feel guilty that they aren’t doing more work or providing enough homework support for their children.

To avoid these guilt traps and associated stress, we recommend adding self-compassion breaks into your routine. This practice, developed by Kristin Neff, PhD, from the University of Texas at Austin, involves four steps and can be used at any time of day and in any place.

  • Identify and think about the stressful situation.
  • Notice and label the emotional and physical sensation you experience from thinking of the situation.
  • Remind yourself that moments of such suffering are normal.
  • Ask yourself what you need to hear to express kindness to yourself and then say that to yourself.

On your own: Review a more detailed explanation of self-compassion breaks in the how-to guide.

Don’t forget to use the three strategies when there is too much on your plate

Given all that is being asked of us during this pandemic, it’s easy to feel that we are falling further and further behind at work and at home. Not only are we under enormous stress, but we also feel like the ground has shifted beneath us. Our routines have been disrupted, and the line between work and home life is blurred. And it certainly doesn’t help when we look at social media and see what others have accomplished in their free time.

Following the three strategies in this segment of our COVID-19 Care Package should bring you some stability and perspective. By practicing these skills, you also will be able to give yourself a few moments of extra peace and joy during the day. You deserve it!

Downloadable Resources to Use on Your Own

Information Sheet:

Pre-Work List:

How-to Guides:

Fillable Activity: