We Asked Experts How to Cope With Your Coronavirus Anxiety
If you’re not sure how to handle the onslaught of news, panic, and fear about the coronavirus—you’re not alone.
Shelves that once were stocked with hand sanitizer bottles are empty, face masks are running low for medical professionals, and it can feel impossible to escape the onslaught of news about emerging cases of the new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.
Do we panic? Or do we not? When every other headline is telling you to act differently, it can be hard to organize your thoughts and manage your anxiety in the face of global apprehension.
To help us all navigate these confusing times, we talked with some experts on how to cope with the uncertainty that's accompanying COVID-19 and how you can ease some of that very real anxiety.
Find Quality Resources
There’s a lot of conflicting information online that can influence how you feel about COVID-19, and finding a source that’s reliable is a key way to avoid falling into a stress spiral.
“People who are already predisposed to general anxiety (I include myself in that group!) need to find a single source of reliable information that is not falsely reassuring but is also not catastrophic,” Catherine Belling, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Medical Education at Northwestern University, shares with Shine.
It’s important to be wary of where you're getting your news. Belling explains that for those with anxiety, imaginations can often jump straight to worst-case scenarios or confusion if you’re not relying on trusted sources.
“At this point, your local health department is a good source,” she says. Try doing a Google search for the place you live and “health department” and you may see some results. If not, try doing a search for your region or state—or even your country.
If you’re located in the United States and you’re not sure how to find your local health department, this resource might be helpful in locating the best updates.
Different resources work best for different people, and that’s critical to keep in mind as well. If you’re a parent wanting to talk to your children about COVID-19, for example, then resources like this comic courtesy of NPR can help explain the situation in easy-to-understand terms and in a reassuring tone (as a grown adult, it even helped me).
Reading about the political implications of COVID-19 can also induce anxiety, Belling mentions. Just remember that ultimately, only you can be the judge of what you need to know—and it’s OK if you need to set limits on that.
Remember What You Can Control
“It's not realistic to hunker down and cut yourself off from everything at this point because the harm caused to your life would probably outweigh the potential harm caused to you by the virus,” Belling explains. “The most control we all have is basic, unspectacular hygiene and being patient.”
Because things are uncertain, remember to hold onto the facts that we do have at our disposal.
At the time of publication, we know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests we avoid touching our faces, disinfecting frequently touched objects, and washing our hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (Pro-tip: That’s about as long as the chorus of Beyonce’s song “Love on Top”).
What we know: The COVID-19 does not affect everyone equally. The CDC reports that if you’re older or have an underlying health condition—like heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes—you could be at a higher risk of serious illness. The recommendation for these populations currently is the same: Avoid contact with others who are sick and wash your hands frequently.
Knowing the situation could change as new cases develop, clinical psychologist Krystal M. Lewis, Ph.D, tells Shine it's helpful to have a plan of action, especially if you have the means to prepare. That could mean stocking up on non-perishable food and refilling any prescriptions that are running low.
But overall, accept that so much of the COVID-19 outbreak is out of your control. And understand your anxiety comes from a place of wanting to make sense of uncertainty—which is human.
“Anxiety hates waiting and thrives on not knowing what's going to happen next,” Belling says. “So that's the real challenge, and it's where all the usual anxiety-calming strategies come into play.”
Continue Your Mindfulness Practice
When you feel your anxiety creeping in, try to make it your cue to turn to some mindfulness techniques to help you feel grounded again.
There are so many different things you can do to ease any worry spirals: You can try tactics like this 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise, use one of the 4 R’s to direct your anxiety elsewhere, find a quiet space to take a breath break, or use different questions to combat the negative voice in your head that might be perpetuating fear.
If you’re not sure where to start, search the Shine app for meditations that fit whatever you’re experiencing at the moment.
Whatever you do to practice self-care—whether it’s through meditations, exercise, or your routines—try to keep up with those habits now more than ever.
“It is OK to take time for yourself when you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed to the point of it disrupting your day,” Lewis says. “You must take care of yourself first so that you can continue to take care of your loved ones and your daily responsibilities.”
Set Boundaries With Your Phone
Boundaries can help you in all areas of your life, but in the wake of COVID-19, they’re especially helpful in quelling stress. You have the power to set boundaries to protect your energy and mental health.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by constant push notifications from a news app or Twitter, for example, know it’s OK to disable the alerts to protect your mental health.
“If you are constantly checking your phone and social media, take those apps off your phone or schedule one time per day which you allow yourself to check the news,” Lewis says.
Turns out there’s scientific proof that taking small actions like that can help you in the long run, too. A study showed that 24 hours without notifications (like those news alerts) can help improve stress levels.
Remember: You can always opt back into alerts when you feel ready, so there’s no risk in pausing as needed.
Set Boundaries With Your Community, Too
When something is in the news, it’s easy for that subject to become a constant source of conversation among your friends. Remember that it’s OK to set boundaries if topics start to breach territory that’s triggering your anxiety.
“When you feel yourself getting worked up in a conversation or overwhelmed, know that you may need to step away from the conversation,” Lewis says. “If it's one-on-one, you can subtly change the topic or if in a group excuse yourself.”
Saying something like, “Hey, I’d appreciate it if we didn’t talk about that here and focused on something else” can help you navigate your boundaries and express your needs.
Cultivate Moments of Hope
Cultivating hope in times of fear can be hard, but there are ways we can shift our mindset to make our anxiety feel less intense.
One way you can do that is by making sure to keep track of small wins and moments of gratitude you have throughout your day. Savoring these moments of joy will help you build in breaks from your anxious outlook.
Also: Give yourself permission to imagine if the feared outcome does occur—meaning you get COVID-19—that it could be handled and you could be OK.
“The whole meaning of anxiety is that it is uncertain, which means that it always includes the possibility that the best will happen,” Belling says. “Try to remember that anxiety is a blend of fear and hope, and see if you can keep the hope part in mind too.”
Don’t Forget Your Empathy
Sometimes, anxieties can manifest in ways that hurt others.
Because COVID-19 first appeared in China, people who are or appear to be Asian are now the target of spreading xenophobia, racism, and discrimination—and some are even experiencing hate crimes.
This phenomenon isn’t new, but it’s definitely an opportunity to practice empathy.
If you see someone experiencing microaggressions, step in if you feel comfortable enough to do so. Arm yourself with facts from the CDC and share that “being of Asian descent does not increase the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19.”
If you’re not sure what practicing empathy looks like in everyday situations, this resource from the New York Times can help you understand how to put it into practice. And take time to listen to others who are experiencing xenophobia or racism right now. This personal essay is a good place to start.
Overall, remember that any anxiety you’re experiencing is normal. But by setting boundaries, cultivating hope, practicing empathy, and remembering what you can and can’t control, you can care for your mental and emotional health throughout this outbreak.
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