Posted by Allison Grant, March 30, 2020 (last updated on April 30, 2020)
As the world collectively figures out how to deal with the new reality of the coronavirus, it can be hard not to dwell and worry about what the next few months hold. While you watch the numbers of people with COVID-19 climb higher and higher–and are reminded that there are still more people yet to be diagnosed–small victories like recovery stories, communities banding together, and vaccine trials are easy to miss.
It’s impossible to know for sure how the coronavirus will impact your life, and that uncertainty breeds anxiety. While it’s normal not to feel at ease during this time–we all need a healthy amount of caution right now–there are ways you can keep the effects of anxiety from taking a toll on your everyday life. Below, learn how to care for your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.
Anxiety stems from uncertainty
In your daily life, your brain works to spot threats and help you figure out how to overcome them. When you get into a stressful situation, “fight-or-flight” instinct kicks in, and your brain tells the rest of your body to go into overdrive because something big is going down. Adrenaline gets pumped into your bloodstream, your heart starts racing, your senses get sharper, and you start taking in more air with each breath. When the threat, whatever it was, passes, your body pumps the brakes, and things begin to return to normal. However, when it comes to open-ended situations, like the coronavirus pandemic, that stress can stick around because you aren’t sure when you’re going to feel safe again.
A 2016 study by neuroscientists at University College London found that uncertainty was actually more stressful than knowing for sure that something bad is going to happen. When you’re faced with a real, immediate threat, you’re forced to take action to keep yourself safe. On the other hand, a looming unknown, like the coronavirus pandemic, presents a vague threat that you can’t do much about (aside from taking the recommended precautions like social distancing and washing your hands). Scientists have figured out that people (subconsciously) use worrying as a way to find some control in an uncontrollable situation. Worrying can make you feel like you’re taking action against the threat, but, instead of helping you overcome an obstacle, it just feeds into your anxiety.
Different people react to this anxiety in different ways, but common reactions to coronavirus-induced uncertainty include:
- Worry or fear about your health and your family’s health
- Changes in the way you sleep or eat
- Trouble sleeping or concentrating
- Worsening of chronic health problems
- Increasingly turning to alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
A daily approach to curbing anxiety
Learning how to cope with anxiety is valuable for this coronavirus pandemic and for pretty much every other situation you’ll face in life. Your fight-or-flight instinct is helpful for when you’re faced with immediate danger, something humans once needed to stay safe from hazards that no longer threaten us (like saber-toothed tigers, for instance). In the modern world, you don’t have the same type of physical threats...usually. With the coronavirus affecting people around the world, there is a physical danger to be aware of. However, since you can’t fight off a virus like you can fight off a bear or tiger, the fight-or-flight instinct isn’t super effective. Still, your mind is conditioned to do everything it can to survive, which naturally leads to anxiety over situations that you can’t control. By managing your mental health, you’ll be more capable of focusing on taking actions that will actually help you and your loved ones get through this.
What daily changes can you make to help lower your anxiety levels overall? In an interview with the New York Times, psychologists Julia Hitch and Andrew Fleming recommend performing three key actions each day to help keep anxiety at bay:
- Set an achievable goal for the day. This can be anything from putting away the clothes that you washed to yesterday to doing a 20-minute yoga flow, to trying out a new recipe in the kitchen. The only thing that matters is that you choose a task you can reasonably get done that day.
- Find an element of pleasure. Every day, take a moment to do one thing that’s solely for you. Hitch and Fleming recommend taking a luxurious bath or eating—and savoring—your favorite snack. Find your joy.
- Connect with loved ones. With social distancing changing so many parts of your life, it is all-too-easy to disconnect completely. You may not feel like chatting with people virtually, but it’s critical for your mental health. Since loneliness can impact your physical health as well, it’s important to prioritize connection during this time. Whether you use FaceTime, Snapchat, or old-fashioned telephone calls, take time each day to connect with your network of people that love and care for you.
These three steps can decrease the number of moments during each day that you spend fighting off looming existential dread. When you feel the fear creeping up, and you think there’s nothing you can do to stop it, try to focus on the moment that you’re in. Right now, if you and your loved ones are healthy and safe, that’s enough.
If you notice stress anxiety interfering with your daily activities for several days in a row, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends calling your healthcare provider. You can even find telemedicine options for mental health professionals, so you can get the help you need from the comfort (and safety) of your own home.
Other ideas for coping with daily stress during this pandemic include:
- Downloading a meditation app
- Practicing mindfulness, yoga, or deep breathing
- Addressing the other things in your life may be adding to your stress
- Asking for help or support when you need it
- Finding out what self-care means for you and making time for it each day
- Being kind to yourself, especially on your bad days
Managing anxiety while staying informed about the coronavirus
How else can you shift your focus away from your anxiety and towards the things that make you happy? Try limiting your media intake. There’s a difference between being informed and overdosing on news. Of course, you should get enough information to help you make decisions, but there’s no added value in checking news outlets ten times a day instead of just two or three. Also, it helps to make sure that you only look for information from trustworthy, unbiased sources, like the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO).
While social media is an important tool for staying connected while quarantined, it can also be a pretty major source of anxiety–especially when people are quick to post news updates but not-as-quick to check their sources for accuracy. For a healthy relationship with social media during the pandemic, try to be more mindful about how you spend your time. Instead of scrolling endlessly, and exposing yourself to everyone else’s anxiety and panic, focus instead on connecting with specific people and looking for positive things to share.
Other tips for combating anxiety during the COVID-19 outbreak
Helping others can be a great place to channel all of that energy you’ve built up by staying home for days on end. Here are some ways that you can make a difference while still practicing responsible social distancing:
- Think through what you need to purchase in the next few months and buy gift cards from your favorite local business and save them for later (or, if possible, share them with essential workers in your community, like delivery people, grocery store clerks, and mail carriers). Not only will you be preparing for the future, but you’ll also be helping small businesses who will be hit hard by the economic impact of coronavirus.
- If you have the means, make an online donation to your local food bank or homeless shelter (Forbes has compiled a list of national charities that are accepting coronavirus relief donations.).
- Offer to pick up groceries for your at-risk loved ones and neighbors.
- Call other parents to touch base on how everyone is coping with this new normal.
- Reach out to your child’s teacher and ask if there’s anything you can do to help.
When you’re anxious and uncertain, it’s hard to tell which habits are helpful (washing your hands when you get home from the store) and which are a symptom of anxiety (stockpiling four years worth of toilet paper). If you’re worried that you may have the coronavirus, don’t let your anxiety keep you from getting the treatment you need. Solv makes it easy to book a telemedicine appointment, so you can get the care you need when you need it–while still practicing social distancing. Download now.