Using ACT to manage stress during Coronavirus

Using ACT to manage stress during Coronavirus | Art Therapy with Kimberly

After the initial shock of COVID, I booked an over-the-phone appointment with my counsellor.

I don’t love talking on the phone in general, let alone with my counsellor. I find it really uncomfortable because so much of communication is done through body language. But desperate times called for desperate measures and I needed someone to help me make sense of the influx of emotions I was experiencing. As always, she helped me through what I was experiencing and taught me more about myself.

After the call, I felt like normal human again. She sent me a follow up email with a few exercises and ideas to help me. One of them included a PDF document by Russ Harris to FACE COVID.

I thought it was incredibly powerful, and wanted to share with you. The acronym ‘FACE COVID’ provides some useful steps for responding to the Corona crisis using the principles of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Here is a brief summary on how to FACE COVID:

F = Focus on what’s in your control
A = Acknowledge your thoughts & feelings
C = Come back into your body
E = Engage in what you’re doing

C = Committed action
O = Opening up
V = Values
I = Identify resources
D = Disinfect & distance

F = Focus on what’s in your control

As the saying goes, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The more we focus on what’s not in our control, the more hopeless we feel. The single most useful thing to do in any type of crisis is to focus on what’s in your control. You can’t control what happens in the future, how many people will become seriously ill, or the world economy. You also can’t magically control your feelings. It’s completely natural to feel fear and anxiety in times of crisis, your brain is hardwired for survival and will do its best to protect you.

But you can control what you do.

We have more control over our behaviour than we do over our thoughts and feelings. Therefore, our number one aim is to take control of our behaviour to respond effectively to this crisis. This involves both dealing with our inner world and all of those difficult thoughts and feelings, as well as our outer world.

How do we do this?

Harris uses this analogy: when a storm hits a harbour, all the boats immediately drop anchor. If they don’t, they’ll get swept out to sea. Of course dropping anchor doesn’t make the storm go away (anchors can’t control the weather) but it can hold a boat steady in the harbour until the storm passes. Similarly, in an ongoing crisis, we’re all going to experience ‘emotional storms’: unhelpful thoughts spinning inside our head, and painful feelings whirling around our body. And if we’re swept away by that storm inside us, there’s nothing effective we can do.

A = Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings

This step is extremely important and should not be overlooked. It’s also one of the most difficult because it usually feels terrible.

It’s important to acknowledge whatever is ‘showing up’ inside you: thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, sensation, urges. Instead of resisting them, observe what’s going on in your inner world. As you do this, it can be helpful to put them into words. For example, silently saying to yourself something like, ‘I’m noticing anxiety now’, or ‘I’m experiencing feelings of depression’, or or ‘I’m having thoughts about someone I love getting sick’.

Interestingly, naming emotions can be a powerful tool in reducing their power. When a feeling is labeled, there is a decreased response in the amygdala and an increased activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.

C = Come back into your body

After you have acknowledged what you are feeling, connect with your physical body. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Take 4 slow, deep breathes.
  • Slowly press your fingertips together.
  • Stretch your arms or neck, shrugging your shoulders.

E = Engage in what you’re doing

Return yourself back to the present moment. There are many ways to do this, here are a few exercises to return to the moment:

  • Try a grounding exercise
  • Try some online yoga
  • Get creative with some art! I’ve been doing collages as an outlet to help keep me calm. Here’s one that felt like a visual representation of my mind:

Using ACT to manage stress during Coronavirus | Life After Elizabeth


Committed action means taking effective action that is guided by your core values. This is action you take because it’s truly important to you, even if it brings up difficult thoughts and feelings. Once you have dropped anchor, acknowledged your thoughts and feelings, returned to your body and the present moment, you can now take control over your actions.

This includes all the protective measures against Coronavirus (frequent hand-washing, social distancing). But in addition to those fundamentals of effective action, consider:

What are simple ways to look after yourself, those you live with, and those you can realistically help? What kind, caring, supportive deeds can you do? Can you say some kind words to someone in distress – in person or via a phone call or text message?

Repeatedly ask yourself ‘What can I do right now – no matter how small it may be – that improves life for myself or others I live with, or people in my community?’ And whatever the answer is – do it, and engage in it fully.


Opening up means making room for difficult feelings and being kind to yourself. Difficult feelings are guaranteed to keep on showing up as this crisis unfolds: fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, guilt, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and many more. We can’t stop them from arising; they’re normal reactions. But we can open up and make room for them: acknowledge they are normal, allow them to be there (even though they hurt), and treat ourselves kindly.

Remember, self-kindness is essential if you want to cope well with this crisis, especially if you are in a caregiver role. If you’ve ever flown on a plane, you’ve heard this message: ‘In event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.’ Well, self-kindness is your own oxygen mask; if you need to look after others, you’ll do it a whole lot better if you’re also taking good care of yourself.

So ask yourself, ‘If someone I loved was going through this experience, feeling what I am feeling – if I wanted to be kind and caring towards them, how would I treat them? How would I behave towards them? What might I say or do?’

Then try treating yourself the same way.


Your values might include love, respect, humour, patience, courage, honesty, caring, openness, kindness, or numerous others. Look for ways to ‘sprinkle’ these values into your day. Let them guide and motivate your committed action. Of course, as this crisis unfolds, there will be all sorts of obstacles in your life; goals you can’t achieve, things you can’t do, problems for which there are no simple solutions. But you can still live your values in a myriad of different ways, even in the face of all those challenges. Especially come back to your values of kindness and caring.

Consider this: What are kind, caring ways you can treat yourself as you go through this? What are kind words you can say to yourself, kind deeds you can do for yourself? What are kind ways you can treat others who are suffering? What are kind, caring ways of contributing to the wellbeing of your community? What can you say and do that will enable you to look back in years to come and feel proud of your response?


Identify resources for help, assistance, support, and advice. This includes friends, family, neighbours, health professionals, emergency services. If you are able to offer support to others, send them a text and ask how they’re doing. You can be a resource for other people, just as they can for you. One very important aspect of this process involves finding a reliable and trustworthy source of information for updates on the crisis and guidelines for responding to it. The World Health Organisation website is the leading source of such information as well as the website of your country’s government health department. Use this information to develop your own resources: action plans to protect yourself and others, and to prepare in advance for quarantine or emergency.


As we all know, it’s important to disinfect your hands and practice as much social distancing as realistically possible for the greater good of your community. Remember, we’re talking about physical distancing – not cutting off emotionally. There are so many ways to connect virtually with friends and family.


So, there you have it: FACE COVID. I hope it helps you as must as it did for me.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from this is that we cannot control our feelings and emotions. It’s like we live in a positive vibes culture and if you are not becoming spiritually enlightened during this time then you are wrong. It’s not true. We need to allow a thought and feeling to move through, otherwise it gets suppressed and will cause so many other problems. Instead, name the emotion or feeling and reduce the power of it, then take a committed step into the direction of your choosing.

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