There is no doubt that there is little in our world that has been unchanged by the arrival of COVID-19.
Most restaurants are closed, many people are either out of work or working from home, and schools are closed. Even a simple trip to the grocery store is far different than it used to be- patrons wearing masks, cashiers behind plexiglass, one-way signs in the aisles. So much of daily living has been changed in a very short period of time. These changes are unprecedented and bring with them uncertainty and anxiety.
Fear is an emotional response to a known threat. Anxiety is the feeling that arises when we are less certain about an event or outcome. Anxiety increases when we are experiencing something unexpected or novel and do not have enough information to determine what is going to happen next. Experiencing a global pandemic is a new experience for everyone. It is completely unfamiliar and we are without anything we could compare it to in order to develop a strategy to cope.
It is expected that you might be feeling anxious frequently. Concern for loved ones who might fall ill, difficulty knowing what long-term plans you had (vacations, special occasions, etc.) that might be altered or affected, financial worries, etc. There is a long list of areas of our lives being impacted by the pandemic. All of this worry can feel overwhelming, so it is important to find ways to relax and relieve stress.
Here are some strategies you can use the next time your brain starts the worrying that fuels anxiety:
Remember it is okay to feel anxious
The times we are living in are unprecedented. Pretending you are not anxious when you are or telling yourself you “shouldn’t” be anxious will not change the fact that you ARE anxious. In the words of Carl Jung, “What you resist, persists.” The more you deny your anxiety, the more it will grow.
Fear and anxiety serve the purpose of alerting us to danger. They have kept us alive for generations. In today’s context, anxiety about COVID-19 might encourage you to take the safety precautions being encouraged by medical experts (regular hand washing, social distancing, wearing a mask in public, etc.).
Really feel the anxiety you are experiencing
The next time you find yourself feeling worried or anxious, do not try to “fix” your feelings or push them away. Instead, notice how it feels to be anxious. The “story” about your anxiety will try to take over. As best as you are able, refocus your mind on the sensations you are experiencing instead. Narrating what you are feeling to yourself (“My chest feels tight and my palms are sweaty.”) can keep your mind busy. Practice learning to tolerate the discomfort of anxiety. Remind yourself that this emotion is just a sign that you do not have all of the answers your brain wants right now.
Turn off the news
It feels important to stay informed, but there is a fine line between having the information you need and becoming obsessed. In large part, the job of the news media is to keep people tuned in. The tactics they sometimes use are sensationalist and intended to imply to the viewer that they MUST stay tuned or else they will miss something important. Unfortunately, a potential side effect of too much news is that you are even more scared than you were before you watched it. Instead of the news informing and reassuring you, it leaves you more anxiety-ridden. As best you can, try to limit your exposure to the news. It is possible choosing to only watch the news once in the morning and once in the evening could keep you informed without adding too much stress.
Limit your time on social media
While it can be helpful to feel connected, social media can increase anxiety. Sites like Facebook and Twitter can be sources of extreme opinions, misinformation, and conspiracy theories. Further, during this time of heightened anxiety few people are operating from their most rational and level-headed selves. This is not the time to be arguing about politics or policies. Save your energy for things like caring for yourself and your family.
Physical activity is a known anxiety-reducer. Exercise helps reduce the levels of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline). It also helps your body to produce endorphins (your body’s natural mood enhancers).
Limit alcohol consumption
When you are feeling anxious, it might seem like a good idea to have a few cocktails to “take the edge off”. The problem is that while you might feel more relaxed in the short term, alcohol is a depressant. This means that is reduces the availability of serotonin (a “keeping you content” hormone) and other neurotransmitters in the brain. As a result, your anxiety may actually get worse instead of better over the long term. These effects can continue for 1-2 days after you have consumed alcohol.
Practice relaxation techniques
Meditation is a simple, effective way to reduce anxiety. Meditation does not have to mean “clearing your mind”. Instead, just think of it as a time to sit still and breathe. A common mediation technique is to sit with your eyes closed and just notice your breath. As you breathe in you say in your mind, “Now I am breathing in.” When you exhale, you say “Now I am breathing out.” These mantras give your mind something to “play with” while you are being still and breathing. Start out with 5 minutes, twice per day. After a few days try 7 minutes, then 9, etc. See if you can be a meditation rock star and get to 20 minutes twice per day. At this level – pandemic or not- you will have far less anxiety than you did before you began meditating.
If you find it is too hard for you to meditate without guidance, YouTube is full of various types of guided meditations. There are also meditation apps like Calm and Headspace that offer guided meditations, as well.
Stay connected to family and friends
Anxiety can be worsened when you feel like you are going through it all by yourself. Regular contact with supportive people in your life like friends and family can be helpful in reducing anxiety. During these interactions, it might be helpful to talk about things NOT related to the news or to COVID-19. Maybe start up a friendly competition to find good news either in a local news source, or on the Internet? Now is also a good time to take a break from family members who increase your anxiety. It is not selfish to limit your contact with people who add to your stress at an already stressful time.
Be helpful when you can
One of the ways you can feel connected to others is by being helpful. Perhaps you can reach out to people in your social circle with friendly phone calls or text messages to see how they are doing? Offer to pick up groceries for an elderly neighbor who may not be able to get out. Host an online “joke a thon” where for 30 minutes, people can join in with their best and worst jokes. Write letters/notes of encouragement for friends and neighbors. Offering other people encouragement and the chance to laugh will no doubt improve your mood, as well.
Seek professional help if you need it
If you are already prone to anxiety or depression, you may find that you are feeling overwhelmed. If you are experiencing symptoms that are interfering with your relationships, your work, or with your ability to take care of yourself. You might want to connect with a Professional Counselor.
I have over 15 years of experience of working with individuals and families, first in child welfare, and then in mental health counseling. I have a Ph. D in Counseling, and am an Interfaith Minister. I work with clients desiring to include all of the aspects of the self in therapy-emotional and spiritual.