Managing anxiety in the midst of COVID-19
Stop. Pause for a second and focus on your breathing.
Did you catch your heart beating a little faster than necessary? You’re not alone! COVID-19 has flipped your world upside down and, as with any major lifestyle change, that change comes with stress. Be proud of yourself for how you’ve coped thus far. It is a testament to your resilience that you are seeking out and reading this article. Now that the world is starting to open back up, a whole new set of stressors will be popping into your life. Chances are you’ve already noticed a few.
We spoke with Scott Bartlett, LCSW, a case management director with Banner Behavioral Health, to get his insight on a few of these new stressors and how to best cope.
My friends and family disagree with my outlook
There are billions of people in the world, which means there are billions of opinions. We all have unique fears, perspectives and needs. Even within your family and close friends. Bartlett addressed this by saying, “This brings us right up against the biggest challenge with any anxiety-provoking situation. We are uncertain, and human beings seek reassurance in order to feel better. When someone whose opinion matters to us has a conflicting perspective, it raises anxiety in ourselves and amplifies the fact that we can’t control other people.”
Bartlett offered a few helpful tips to cope with these sorts of conflicts:
Have you decided to follow the CDC guidelines? If so, it is time to set limits with the pandemic itself. Tell yourself you are doing everything within your control that you consider reasonable and prudent (handwashing, wearing a mask, social distancing) and leave the rest alone.
This may include masks, social distancing, or any number of issues. The people around you have likely heard the same guidelines you have. This is difficult because your anxiety may tell you that you need to take charge of the pandemic and educate others in order to protect yourself and your family. Try not to overburden yourself and remember that taking that responsibility on yourself may lead you down a rabbit hole with no end in sight.
Recognize there are alternative positions and competing priorities in terms of opening the economy while reducing the spread of the virus. People are coping with economic consequences from the measures we have taken so far. They are highly motivated to restore their finances. They have a different perspective and your attempt to convince them is unlikely to result in a change of behavior.
I’m feeling scared
As the world begins to open up, you will likely be met with a wide variety of emotions. Relief to be stepping out of your front door, fear that the people you come in contact with could be contagious and confusion about the facts and findings surrounding the virus – these are all valid.
Bartlett added some reassuring feedback to people suffering from this common anxiety. “Caution has been flooding our collective consciousness for a few months now. So, it’s normal to view all other human beings as potential coronavirus carriers. This is accompanied by visual cues of seeing other people wearing masks, as well as sensory cues if we are wearing masks ourselves, and seeing people steer clear of one another walking down a hallway or street.”
It’s a strange world we are living in right now. One of the best things you can do for yourself is set some ground rules for your own daily behavior. Once you have set the rules, tell yourself you are doing what you can and stick with your plan of action. Try to find stability in the knowledge that you are working within your own comfort zone and work to raise your ability to tolerate the uncertainty.
I’m feeling overwhelmed and confused
The 24-hour news cycle is relentless. With headlines and stories flooding in from around the world, you have every right to feel overwhelmed. Bartlett offered some advice on limiting your information intake. “It’s ok to reduce the frequency or completely eliminate watching the news or social media related to COVID-19. You can be sure that someone will tell you when the vaccine is here, or a major change has occurred requiring some action on your part. Checking in for news once a week is enough to keep current.”
Bartlett also encouraged people to reconnect with any spiritual or meditative practice that gives you comfort. He also recommended that you connect with a creative outlet or hobby and schedule time to engage in it. Without scheduled time, you may be tempted to put it off.
Anxiety tends to escalate on its own. Have you ever felt anxious about being anxious? When you feel it coming, remind yourself that you don’t need to avoid it. If you can hold your ground and let the anxious feeling come, it will often subside without you doing anything about it.
Oh no, I think I’m getting sick. But… am I?
You don’t have to be one of the most vulnerable to feel scared. COVID-19 is hard to understand and even harder to see. Review the symptoms so that they are clear in your mind and you don’t have to guess what they are as soon as you feel a little sick. If you feel gentle symptoms, it’s ok to call your doctor and ask some questions.
Keeping a daily log of your symptoms and feelings is another way to keep your long-term perspective grounded in reality. Without a record, you may be tempted to exaggerate, or undervalue, the severity of your symptoms over time.
When is it time to consider professional help?
First of all, if you feel that you need help, you should get it. Don’t get caught up in second guesses or self-doubt. Does your anxiety interrupt or intrude on your daily life? For those that said yes, Bartlett said that it might be time. “A trained counselor can help you with changing your beliefs about your anxiety and find a new way to think about it.” We all need help from time to time. Don’t be embarrassed.
These are especially stressful times. Bartlett brought up the important distinction between situational and chronic anxiety.
Situational anxiety is clearly tied to a specific event or circumstance. Remove the circumstance and the anxiety lessens.
Chronic anxiety is like a hungry animal that constantly looks for food – the circumstances don’t matter. When the feelings come, you may attempt to solve it by seeking reassurance or avoiding what is seen as the problem. When the anxiety doesn’t go away, it becomes the way you look at life.
Bartlett concluded with a few key thoughts. “The COVID-19 pandemic is real. We will not meditate or medicate it away. Under professional supervision, medications can be helpful, but our ability to tolerate uncertainty, doubt and anxiety will help us feel better. We have seen an uptick in alcohol consumption, and many people report at least a sense of constant low-level anxiety and worry about this situation. For many, it is difficult to accept the fact that there is still much that is not known. Accepting the situation is the first step toward feeling better.”
Are you looking for help as you step back out into the world? Contact an expert at Banner Health to discuss what you are feeling and how to find peace.