It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation without someone mentioning the novel coronavirus, which has spread to more than 196 countries and territories. With over 414,661 confirmed cases and more developing every day, someone in your own community may be affected — and even those far away from affected individuals could be feeling signs of anxiety as offices, schools, and public places, events all being close for the foreseeable future.
If you already have developed a hard knot of dread in the pit of your stomach — maybe it pops up when you’re scrolling social media, or walking past an empty grocery aisle — it’s important to note: leading mental health experts say this is actually a healthy reaction.
“I would say it’s very important to understand that if you’re anxious, it’s okay — you’re normal,” says Gail Saltz, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. “Because right now there’s a lot of anxiety-producing stuff going on. It’s evolutionary, normal, and healthy to have anxiety in reactions to things, with an appropriate level of concern.”
While you shouldn’t feel shame or concerned if you feel anxious during this time, Dr. Saltz also clarifies that, often, a person can easily elevate their concerns to a life-consuming level of anxiety that’s inhibiting altogether. “Here’s when I would be concerned: If your anxiety becomes way out of proportion to what’s going on … and it interrupts your ability to function, then it’s time to think about addressing it [with a professional],” she says.
If anxiety has turned into fear, feelings of helplessness, or panic in your everyday life (or for someone you love), there may be a few smart ways you calm yourself while staying adequately informed.
1) Acknowledge your anxiety, and don’t try to deflect it.
It’s an age-old reality, but the more you think about not doing something, the more likely you are to actually do it. Joseph McNamara, Ph.D., the co-director of the University of Florida’s Center for OCD, Anxiety and Related Disorders, says trying to deny any anxious feelings isn’t going to help you manage your stress later on. “Anxiety helps us to prepare and be safe. If we didn’t have any anxiety before a test, we wouldn’t study,” he says, alongside Megan Barthle-Herrera, Ph.D., an assistant professor in UF’s department of psychiatry.
Jeffrey Cohen, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, says being aware of your anxiety may also help you better manage it in future instances. “Practice tolerating uncertainty. The paradox is that the more we are unwilling to accept anxiety, the more our anxiety increases, so practice allowing anxiety to be present and remind yourself it is ok to feel anxious.”
2) Consider all information, not just statistics.
Anxiety might push you to “fall into thinking traps,” says Dr. Cohen. This kind of thinking might cause you to only dwell on worst case scenarios and “underestimate the ability to cope.” It might be hard to do at first, but try to focus on the resources in place to help people recover, and the fact that the current recovery rate for COVID-19 far outweighs its mortality rate, per data from the World Health Organization.
“Anxious minds tend to pay attention to negative information, so be sure to also pay attention to positive stories about COVID-19, such the experiences of people who have recovered,” Cohen says. “Do not get stuck overestimating the threat and underestimating human resilience.”
3) Try to unplug when you can.
There’s a difference between informing yourself and obsessing over news, says Gregory Jantz, Ph.D., a behavioral disorders expert and author of Healing Depression for Life. “Leaning on social media as our source of information about COVID-19 will increase anxiety — and keep in mind that there’s also a lot of misinformation there, as well,” Dr. Jantz says. He explains that social media timelines are being characterized by what’s known as “anticipatory anxiety” or when “everybody’s expecting something bad to happen.” This often leads to panic and overwrought despair that could contribute to your own sense of anxiety.
Dr. Saltz clarifies it’s not about turning everything off to “stick your head in the sand,” so to speak. It’s about choosing once or twice a day to keep yourself abreast of the latest recommendations from the CDC or the WHO, she says, or a public health epidemiologist you trust, and interweaving well-trusted news when you feel it’s right to do so.
4) Stay active.
“Assuming a holistic approach to the management of stress and anxiety during these tenuous times is an excellent way to go. Focus on things that are within your control — things for your body, mind, and spirit,” says Frank Ardito, Ph.D., the vice chair of the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching and a health sciences professor at the College of Lake County. “Performing a moderately vigorous dance or exercise sequence requires concentration, which can help your mind stay sharp and serve as a healthful distraction from stressful events. And basic yoga can help you remain present and in the moment, effectively quieting the mind.”
Dr. Saltz adds that exercising (even if that means doing so at your home) or meditating can fight some of the physiological symptoms of anxiety: If sweating, nausea, body tension, or constant intrusive thoughts have become an issue, try to address this physically if you can. “Try muscle relaxation techniques: Tense up your muscles in a certain area of your body, count to five and then release them for another count of five, and work your way up your body,” she explains, adding that you can also practice deep breathing as well as mindfulness and meditation. “It’s not like if you haven’t done it, it’s too late to do it.”
Nearly all experts mentioned that aerobic exercise, especially if it’s something that’s already part of your daily routine, could also mitigate anxiety. If you can find a natural space nearby that’s open and free of crowds, this might be best for you, Dr. Saltz says, but even if you are the midst of a quarantine, simply getting up to walk around your space frequently could help.
5) Eat balanced meals, and get to bed on time.
Eating healthy is important in many ways, but particularly crucial now, as it’s easier to resort to self-destructive behaviors when you may be confined to your home, says Dr. Jantz. This also includes alcohol consumption.“I’ve seen wine jokes right and left on social media, but it’s important to understand that in reality, alcohol is a depressant,” Dr. Saltz explains. “You may feel less anxious in the moment, but it won’t help your mood… and you may find that next time you’ll need even more next time around to achieve the same effect.”
While anxiety has a tendency to disrupt your sleep schedule, Dr. Saltz says trying to keep your sleep routine as consistent as possible (and getting at least 7 hours) will actually increase your ability to deal with stress during the day. “The more that you can use proper sleep hygiene to keep your schedule consistent, the better,” she says.
6) Keep in touch with family and friends.
There’s a good chance you may be asked to self-quarantine in the following weeks, if you haven’t done so already. But that doesn’t mean you should completely isolate yourself, Dr. Jantz says, as this will only induce more anxiety altogether. You may not be able to physically speak with them, but talking with your loved ones, friends, and even colleagues or acquaintances can help minimize the isolating effect that social distancing may have on you — even though it’s necessary to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria.
In a perfect world, this means picking up the phone and calling people, or video chatting through a computer — not connecting with strangers over Twitter to talk about the novel coronavirus, says Dr. Saltz.
And if you’ve noticed someone in your life is contributing to your anxiety, you may feel better by taking a small break from them. “Some people are more resilient and better able to manage what’s happening, whereas others can catastrophize — if this is someone who you love and care about, you can express that they’re making it harder on themselves and, more importantly, on you,” Dr. Saltz advises. It’s also okay to protect yourself by distancing yourself from anyone who’s increasing your stress.