Coping with Anxiety in the Age of COVID-19

Photo courtesy of Shannon O’Brien and @blksmth.

To say these are strange times is an understatement. Cities are eerily still and silent, their streets as empty as Christmas day. Restaurants and bars are shutting down, no longer emitting their friendly nighttime buzz. Store shelves are empty, or nearly so, stripped of everyday essentials like hand soap and toilet paper.

The sights, sounds, and sensations of the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented, except in fiction—and with so much uncertainty comes certain anxiety. 

Psychologists define anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Unlike fear, which is an emotional response to a definite threat, anxiety is our brain’s response to an unknown danger. Anxiety crops up when we don’t have enough information to predict the future accurately. 

With a global pandemic permeating the consciousness, it can be challenging to stay calm. It’s even more difficult because the situation is so new and unfamiliar. In essence, there is no framework to help us navigate these uncertain times.

If you’re feeling worried and overcome with “what if” thinking right now, know that you’re not alone. However, if your anxiety has turned into feelings of helplessness or panic, it’s important to find ways to relieve stress, soothe yourself, and relax.

Next time your brain starts spinning out of control, quell your anxiety with these bite-sized tips:

Remind yourself it’s okay to feel anxious 

In the words of Carl Jung, “What you resist persists.”

It’s a bit of a paradox, but the more we deny our anxious feelings, the more worried we become. Instead of shoving your worry aside or berating yourself for feeling panicked, take a step back, and recognize that your anxiety serves a purpose.

Fear and anxiety are evolutionary adaptations of the human brain. They motivate us to prepare for potential threats. (Think of it this way: If you didn’t have any anxiety before a test, you wouldn’t study—right?)

In the context of COVID-19, anxiety urges you to take necessary safety precautions to protect yourself and your family. 

Being aware of your anxiety (and the purpose it serves) may help you manage your symptoms better. 

Next time you feel worried, don’t push your anxious feelings aside. Instead, allow your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations to wash over you. Practice tolerating uncertainty, allowing your anxiety to be present while reminding yourself that it’s an integral part of the human experience.

Flip the off switch

In times of crisis, we all want to stay up to date—but there’s a fine line between being informed and becoming obsessed. If your COVID media consumption borders on compulsive, you’re likely fueling the fire of anxiety. 

When the news leaves you overwhelmed, try implementing a digital detox. Allocate strict limits for engaging with COVID content. Tell yourself, “I’m going to check the news once in the morning and once in the evening. I’m going to find out what’s happening today, and what the guidelines are. Then I’m going to shut myself off from any COVID-19 media.”

If you’re anxious about missing important updates, you can always ask friends and family to contact you in the event of an emergency. 

Stay off social

Social media can keep us connected during times of isolation. However, sites like Facebook and Twitter may also exacerbate our anxiety by exposing us to extreme opinions, conspiracy theories, and misinformation. 

If you find yourself growing anxious as you read updates, put down your phone, or walk away from your computer. (Some social media platforms even have built-in tools to help users manage their time.)

Get some exercise 

(Even if it’s just a dance party in your bedroom.)

Study after study shows that physical activity reduces anxiety. Aerobic exercise reduces the body’s stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) and helps you channel your anxiety elsewhere. Physical activity also stimulates the production of endorphins, your body’s natural mood elevator. 

Practicing social distancing? Skip the gym and opt for a solo activity instead: a hike, a run through the park, or bike ride. (Bonus: Studies show that getting outdoors may also boost your mood and improve mental health.) If you’re cautious about going outside, there’s no shortage of exercises you can do indoors: yoga, squats, jumping rope, running stairs, and even following a video.

Limit alcohol consumption 

When confined to your home for long periods, it’s easy to indulge in self-destructive behaviors such as heavy alcohol consumption. 

While a glass of wine (or two) may be calming in the moment, alcohol is a depressant. It changes levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, which can worsen anxiety. What’s more, as your body processes alcohol, you may feel edgy, irritable, and stressed for several hours—even an entire day. 

Ditch Dr. Google 

If you suffer from health anxiety, Dr. Google is not your friend—especially right now. 

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, coughing, and shortness of breath, which—as you likely know—apply to many diseases, including the common cold. Long story short? It’s impossible to diagnose yourself with COVID-19 via Google. 

If you’re experiencing symptoms of Coronavirus and would like guidance from a real doctor, we’re here to help. Currently, we’re offering cost-free COVID-19 risk assessment and advice virtually, via ChatCare. 

Use some tried-and-tested relaxation techniques

Whether it’s simple meditation exercises, controlled breathing, or self-compassion practices, mindfulness offers a quick and effective anxiety relief.  

One method we love? Equal breathing, also known as box or square breathing. You can practice this technique from a sitting or lying-down position. Here’s how: 

  • Close your eyes. Breathe normally for several breaths, being mindful of the feelings of fullness and emptiness in your lungs
  • Next, slowly count 1-2-3-4 as you inhale through your nose
  • Then, exhale, keeping the same four-second count.
  • As you inhale and exhale, pay close attention to the feeling of your breath entering and exiting your lungs.

After a few minutes, you should feel calmer and more centered.

Want to try other relaxation techniques? Several apps can help you practice paced breathing for stress relief, such as Calm and Headspace

Keep family and friends close—even from afar

According to research, close relationships with family and friends are good for our overall health and happiness. If social distancing is triggering your anxiety, connecting with loved ones via phone or video Facetime may help ease loneliness. 

During these conversations, try not to amplify each other’s worries and fears. Instead, we recommend chatting about non-Covid-related topics, finding opportunities to laugh and to restore a much-needed sense of normalcy. 

However, if a friend or family member is contributing or exacerbating your anxiety, you may want to take a small break from them. It’s okay (and not at all selfish) to protect yourself from anyone who’s catastrophizing and increasing your stress. 

Another way to feel more connected during social distancing? Look out for opportunities to help your neighbors, family, friends, and coworkers. Whether it’s dropping groceries outside someone’s door or coordinating childcare, helping others gives us a sense of purpose—and takes our minds off of our worries for a while. 

Seek professional help if you need it

If you’re already vulnerable to anxiety and depression, you may find the coronavirus pandemic completely overwhelming. If you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms that interfere with your work, maintaining close relationships, or taking care of yourself, we’re here for you. 

Consider consulting with our doctors via ChatCare or booking a visit with one of our Mental Health providers. Either way, we can guide you towards the best solution for your mental health.

Because virtual options are by far the safest, most efficient way to address your healthcare needs, we’re asking our patients to start their care by connecting with a provider through a Phone Visit, or via ChatCare™. Schedule a visit today.