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  • Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.

Taming Anxiety During COVID-19

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

Posted April 15th, 2020 on

We can take action to manage and keep a grip on our anxiety during this crisis.

Feels like a bad dream, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this pandemic is the real thing with countless disruptions to our lives and substantial threats to our health, safety, and livelihood. We’re all experiencing various combinations of upsetting and disturbing emotions, with anxiety being a common thread. 

Anxiety is a completely normal and expected response to a crisis. To ensure our survival, our brains are wired to feel anxious when we encounter uncertainties and threats. You know, fight or flight. During this health crisis, our anxiety protects us and keeps us alert so that we maintain physical distance, wash our hands often and for 20 seconds, and keep our hands off our faces. For those who are ill or without financial resources right now, appropriate anxiety motivates us to take action to find what we need to survive.

Anxiety becomes problematic and unhealthy for us when it takes hold, overwhelms our coping mechanisms, and keeps us from functioning at capacity. Already it has taken a toll. Many people have reported agitation, sleep problems, nightmares, headaches, and obsessive worry. Crisis hotlines are buzzing and alcohol sales soaring. Although we can’t control much of what is happening in our world right now, we don’t want to be overwhelmed and paralyzed by anxiety. We do have control over how we manage it. There are practical measures we can take to gain control over anxiety and certain aspects of our lives. Here are some of them.

Simple Remedies

I’m 100% for yoga, all-in on meditation and fully behind what is known as progressive muscle relaxation. Sure these are great ways to combat anxiety. Maybe some folks will be picking up these practices (check them out on the Internet), but probably most won’t. So, here are two simple and practical ideas that could be helpful. 

  1. Think about breathing. Yes, there are some wonderful tutorials on the Internet about deep breathing. But to make it simple, here’s my advice: Start by taking three deep breaths, slowly inhaling until your belly is full and then exhaling gradually. Do it now and do it from time to time during the day. This will help chill you out. If you want, you can close your eyes to enhance the experience. 

  2. Get physical exercise. If you can find a way to do it while maintaining physical distancing, get aerobic exercise and/or work out on a regular basis. It’s an antidote for anxiety. It’s almost impossible to exercise vigorously and worry at the same time.

Stop Feeding the Anxiety

It’s bad out there, but don’t feed the beast with media.

Turn off the 24-hour news cycle that endlessly repeats information that you could gather in ten minutes, shows the scariest facts and videos available, and then supplements this with panels of talking heads making predictions about things that are unknown, or partaking in redundant discussions. Remember that there’s a news business, all competing for ads and monitoring us for cues, such as anxiety, to know how to pitch their headlines and stories. Let it go. Keep your viewing time limited and try to do it in only one place, so the rest of your living space can be for work, pleasure, and relaxation.

On the Internet and on social media feeds, try to ignore endless data, panicky posts, and posts about conspiracies that only agitate. Right now, try to focus more narrowly on anything about COVID-19 that offers practical advice about physical and psychological health, or crucial data that can help you calculate your own personal response to local circumstances. 

Look for reliable sources that report national and world news in 20 minutes or less. Pay attention to local news to stay abreast of public health advisories. Try to quickly gather the information you need and then turn your attention elsewhere. Definitely spare your children the horror of the endless TV depictions of the hot spots and projections about number of deaths. 

To evaluate news reports, consider asking yourself these three questions: 

  1. Did this report help or enrich me in any way? 

  2. How did I feel before I watched it? 

  3. How did I feel after?

Then, adjust your viewing habits as needed.

Endless Worry

One maladaptive response to anxiety is endless worry, going over and over all the possible negative outcomes. It’s based on the illusion that if we keep thinking about things, we’ll eventually find some sort of simple solution. It doesn’t work that way. I suggest you consider replacing this obsessive thinking with limited “worry time.”  

Take an hour (or less) to list your worries. Use two columns. One column lists the things you can control. The other lists the things you can’t control. Once the list is complete, spend some time making plans about how to address the issues you can control. After this initial plan is complete, set aside 10 to 15 minutes a day (not right before going to bed) to refine your plans about how to address the issues you can control and to remind yourself that the others are out of your control.

If you awaken in the morning feeling anxious and worried, don’t let yourself obsess. Get out of bed right away, open the window, look outside, and start doing something. Get busy.

Sleep Problems

Don’t allow yourself to worry in bed. Bed is for sleeping and sex. During this crisis with schedules turned upside down, make sure you stick with a regular bedtime. Establish calming bedtime rituals and skip the caffeine. Keep electronic screens in another room. If you have difficulties falling asleep at night because of anxiety, remind yourself that bed is not a place to worry and after 15 minutes of not sleeping, get up and do something boring until you feel sleepy again, and then return to bed. Repeat as necessary. Don’t let bed become “the place you worry” because that will interfere with sleep. Remind yourself that you will handle your worries during “worry time.” If you have sleep problems, it might help to skip daytime naps.

Distractions and Meaningful Use of Time

Distractions are a good way to take your mind off troubles. Don’t discount mindless distractions such as TV and video games. However, too much mindless distraction can cause problems. Gaming addiction and excessive use of alcohol and other drugs come to mind. Certain kinds of distractions such as endless hours in front of a video screen can actually increase boredom and add stress to your life. Think of it this way: Allow yourself some escapism, but don’t become an escapist.

You might want to consider using this COVID-19 “time out” as an opportunity to think about finding meaningful ways to engage your mind. Perhaps you can explore new interests or learn new skills or enjoy music or partake in some kind of educational endeavor and, who knows, even do some closet cleaning that you’ve been postponing.

Another form of anxiety gone wild is catastrophizing. This is when you focus on the most disastrous, catastrophic possible outcomes. If you have a tendency in this direction, it may help to simply label it as “catastrophizing” – an unhealthy way of thinking that is kind of like imagining ghosts or someone yelling “boo” in a dark room. If you stop and think about it, catastrophizing is scaring yourself unnecessarily, rather than actually doing anything about a difficult situation. It is disabling. You can decide that from now on you will catch yourself when you catastrophize and stop this tendency whenever it rears its ugly head. Then you can remind yourself of precautions you have already taken to mitigate realistic threats.

Stay Connected

One of the best ways to handle stress and anxiety is by getting support from other people, a strategy made much more difficult by physical distancing. Even as we pull apart and retreat to our homes, we can take action to connect with others and avoid isolation. We can make a concerted effort to stay connected through the use of all available resources such as text messages, phone calls, email, and social media. Meeting platforms such as Zoom, Facetime, and WebEx allow for virtual gatherings, and people have found creative ways to hang out, for example by playing games, exercising, singing, partying, cooking, and eating meals together.

This is a good time to think about who matters to you. You can make a list of personal connections, starting with the inner circle of immediate family members and close friends. You can add to the list: extended family, neighbors, co-workers/colleagues, and acquaintances from religious groups, teams, clubs and other organizations. You can re-connect with old friends. This is a good time to practice the social skill of reaching out. It is an important time to think about helping others who live alone or might be feeling lonely or isolated. You could make a schedule, taking into consideration how often you want to reach out to each person on your list and how much time you want to devote to this. If you feel isolated, redouble your efforts to connect.

Connecting to your community also empowers us to overcome anxiety. You can:

  1. Act for the social good, for example by shopping for the elderly and vulnerable, sharing supplies, making masks, and donating time, money and other resources to those in need. 

  2. Show gratitude through words, contributions, and public recognition and deeds to honor and support the healthcare workers who are heroes and essential workforce who are keeping our country running. Acts of connection of this sort empower us and help reduce our own anxiety. 

A Reminder

Anxiety is our friend when we face adversity, but a beast when it gets a hold on us. We can and must tame anxiety in order to preserve our health, security, and well being. As we cope with our current hardships, it’s important to remind ourselves that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

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