Therapists Answer Your Top Questions About Coronavirus Anxiety
You’re far from alone if you’re feeling anxious right now.
There’s an unprecedented level of anxiety across the globe as the new coronavirus (COVID-19) begins to change day-to-day life for so many of us.
And if you’re part of the 1 in 4 people across the world with an existing mental health condition, it can feel even more challenging.
The worries you’re having in your head? Know that so many other people across the world are dealing with them, too.
First: Let’s take a deep breath.
There’s so much that’s out of our control right now—but so much that’s still in our control. One of those things: If we decide to care for our mental health as well as our physical health during this time.
We took some of your top questions on how to cope with coronavirus anxiety and turned to two of our favorite experts—psychologist Anna Rowley, Ph.D., and psychologist Patricia Thompson, Ph.D.—to get some answers.
Read on for some of their advice, and head to our resource, Care For Your Coronavirus Anxiety, to learn more ways to care for yourself and ask our experts your own mental health questions.
Anxiety About the News
I feel like this is not only a pandemic, but also an infodemic as well. How do I stay informed while keeping my anxiety from skyrocketing when everywhere I look (TV, radio, in public) the coronavirus is there?
Dr. Patricia Thompson: I agree with you about it being an infodemic! Every time you turn on the TV, COVID-19 is dominating the news cycle. Therefore, as you noted, the best approach is to set strict boundaries in place for yourself.
In addition, you could also set a boundary of checking the news once or twice a day, at specific times—perhaps in the morning and in the evening. Although it’s true that things seem to be changing quickly, those two touch points during the day should be adequate.
For news, I would recommend checking in with a local news site so that you can keep abreast of any new guidelines for your immediate area. Although the press conferences from the White House may be helpful, if you are trying to limit your news consumption, you can probably skip them, confident that the key points will be summarized for you in your local news.
Finally, if your newsfeed is anything like mine, information (and misinformation) is also all over social media. For that reason, you’ll need to set boundaries there as well. You can do this by deciding in advance what times you will allow yourself to check your social media, and for how long. You could even set a timer to keep yourself honest.
Finally, make sure to check in with respect to how you are feeling. If you’re getting too anxious as a result of checking in to stay informed, then take a break, ground yourself through a quick meditation, and dial back your consumption of the news. As long as you know the precautions you should be taking and are following them, you’ll be able to do your part to flatten the curve.
Anxiety About Future Plans
I have a big event coming up and don’t know if it’ll still happen. How can I better sit with the uncertainty?
Dr. Anna Rowley: The unknown is a tough place to sit. One of the major impacts of the virus is it injects so much uncertainty into our lives. This makes it really hard to plan ahead. However, there are a few proactive things you can do that might help you feel more in control.
You could start by creating a backup plan. If it’s an upcoming wedding, for example: Check with the venue where you intend to hold the event and find out how they are responding to COVID-19. I'm sure there are many people in the same spot you are. If people are booking flights, many airlines have instigated a refund policy so there is flexibility of travel for guests. How are local hotels responding to the virus?
You may find there is a ”hard date” when you have to make a “go,” “no-go” decision. Deciding on this date will be hard. However, once you have made this decision it will free you up to either plan a different date for your event or to go ahead with the event as planned.
Anxiety About Job Security
How do I navigate anxiety over my career right now?
Dr. Rowley: The really tough part of the situation is the uncertainty. Dealing with that emotion is the first thing you can focus on.
However, the fact that you are thinking about managing your career is actually a positive. You’re being proactive.
If you’re employed: Have you spoken to colleagues or your boss about what plans are in place to manage the situation?
If you are about to join the labor market: Stay focused on what you will bring to a job.
Your strengths don’t change. Many, many people are worried about job security. As hard as it might be, focus on what you can control, what you bring, what you have to offer and who you are. It’s tough but trust in yourself to come through this. And remember, you’re not alone. Reach out to friends or family.
Anxiety About Social Distancing
How can I stay mentally healthy while practicing social distancing/working from home?
Dr. Rowley: Feeling cutoff from friends and classmates can create a number of problems. Try to stay connected to them through technology——FaceTime, Snapchat, Facebook, etc.
Second: Create a structure for your new routine. Both work and school impose a structure on how and where we spend our time. If either of those have been disrupted, create some structure for your new day-to-day. Drifting through the day can promote feelings of stress. Set yourself a structure for the day and stick to it.
The third thing is keeping yourself mentally active. Binging on afternoon TV or reruns of Friends might be OK for a day or two, but we all need something to keep us mentally engaged. What do you have that engages you intellectually and emotionally?
The fourth and final thing is to practice emotional self care. One thing the COVID-19 virus is forcing us to do is spend more time with ourselves. Take the time to catch up with yourself and use the opportunity to think about some of those things you may have ignored or put off.
How do I prevent distancing myself from others from leading to depression, like it has in the past?
Dr. Thompson: It’s wonderful that you have the foresight and self-awareness to want to maintain your mental health progress during these uncertain times. You are certainly not alone in feeling unsettled by all that is going on, but your proactive approach bodes well for your ability to cope.
To avoid falling into old habits, I recommend making sure that you have healthy routines in place that will keep you interacting with others and attending to your mood. Socially, you can be intentional about connecting with friends and loved ones through phone calls, texting, video chats, and email. You can also encourage others to check in with you if they haven’t heard from you in a little while.
Another healthy routine would be to schedule time every day to get some form of exercise. Exercise is a natural mood booster, and even if you are not able to leave your home, you can find cardio exercise or yoga routines online that will provide you with some relief.
Meditation is also something that you may want to schedule during your day. Shine has a variety of meditations available in the coronavirus toolkit, that will also be useful for managing stress and anxiety that you may be experiencing. Even 5 minutes of deep breathing can have a big impact on how you feel.
Take care of yourself and be intentional about keeping to your routines. However, if you do find yourself falling back into depression, please make sure to seek out professional help.
Anxiety About Friends & Family
How do I process fear about loved ones in my life who are higher risk?
Dr. Thompson: I can understand being concerned about your friends and family—especially because you are most likely unable to be with them right now.
To start, I recommend that you explore the CDC or WHO COVID-19 sites. If you can familiarize yourself with the information and educate your family about how to protect themselves, you may feel more empowered, knowing that they will be taking the appropriate steps to lessen their risks.
Also, although you might not be with them in-person, you can connect with them in other ways such as video chat, email, telephone, and texting. By staying in touch and checking in with them, you may feel more at ease, because you will be able to see how they are doing, while also reminding them of the appropriate steps to take. Make sure to maintain some normality by talking about topics other than COVID-19 with them.
Finally, make sure to take breaks from watching the news. While it is important to stay informed, the 24⁄7 coverage of it can be upsetting, and will likely increase your feelings of anxiety about your loved ones.
How do I handle family and friends who aren’t taking this seriously?
Dr. Thompson: There are a number of people who don’t seem to be taking the situation seriously. Whether it’s because they’re in denial or they simply don’t understand the ramifications of their actions, each one of us plays a role in the rate at which the virus will spread.
One place to start is with education. There are quite a few articles out there that address the idea of “flattening the curve.” Essentially, this means that if people put the suggested precautions into practice (ex. social distancing, handwashing, etc), it will hopefully prevent a rapid outbreak and avoid a situation in which the healthcare systems become overwhelmed with cases and therefore can’t treat everyone.
For some people, understanding this fact, and seeing the data about how different countries have approached it, and the different outcomes, can be very persuasive. For others, personal posts about someone’s experience with COVID-19 can be helpful. (Here’s a first-person account from a doctor in Europe about COVID-19’s impact.)
The other approach you could take is to draw on any sense of community-mindedness that they might have. It’s true, that if the people in your family are young or healthy, they are probably at low risk of dying from the virus. Still, they can spread it to others—grandparents and others with conditions that put them at higher risk of having serious outcomes as a result of contracting the virus.
In fact, a recent CNN article suggests that people who are asymptomatic could be unwittingly spreading the virus, since there can be a delay before your symptoms show. Finally, I think that you should share with them how you feel. Let them know that you’re concerned, and that the precautionary steps that are being suggested by the CDC and WHO are for our collective safety. Wishing you all the best.
Anxiety About Being Unprepared
How do I deal with the feeling of anxiety of going to a public place I need to enter, like the grocery store?
Dr. Rowley: This is a timely question that I'm sure many people resonate with. One thing you can do is prepare yourself emotionally for your visit to the grocery store.
You can do this with a technique called stress inoculation. Basically you imagine different scenarios and check how anxious you feel.
In the comfort of your own home, visualize or imagine getting your coat on, opening the door and setting off for the grocery store. Check your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10. Ten means you are very anxious, 1 means you don't feel any anxiety at all.
If you feel at a 5 or more, try using one of the Shine meditations to calm yourself or taking a few deep breaths. When you feel grounded take a breath and now imagine you are close to the store. How do you feel now? Again use the scale of 1 to 10.
Eventually work up to visualizing a part-empty shelf. Check how you feel and use the meditation or relaxation exercise you have learned. Keep practicing and then go get groceries.
Please remember, an empty shelf doesn't mean you are not prepared enough. It's probably an indication that other people are taking more than they actually need.
Shine does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have physical health questions, please consult a healthcare professional directly and reference information from the CDC. And if you’re in a mental health crisis, text 741741 to talk with a crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line.
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