The Anxiety of COVID-19

Last month, I posted (on Instagram) some reminders for those dealing with excessive worry or anxiety right now because of COVID-19. As the situation continues, even those who don’t normally deal with anxiety may be feeling it. It’s important to know that one, you’re not alone. The situation is triggering a lot of people. And two, there are ways to help you through it.

We are in unprecedented times, witnessing history really. There is so much going on around us — and it’s ever changing — that it’s easy to see how fears can grow and multiply. That being said, the same skills that we apply to anxiety in normal times work here. We have evidence-based solutions for this. This is good news.

Ultimately, we don’t want to fight our anxiety. The more we fight it, the more it grows. Remember the well-known phrase “whatever you resist, persists.” Instead of resisting the feelings, the goal is to accept them: accept that you’re worrying, and make sure you’re not responding in a way that’s making it worse (either behaviorally or mentally). The less you fight them, the better.

As I’ve said many times, the place to put our energy is how to respond to our thoughts, feelings and those external triggers evoking those experiences. For example, what used to be routine can now trigger anxious thoughts: grocery shopping, washing your hands, even going outside. Your anxiety may tell you that if you do any of those things, you’ll get infected and die. Or your kids will be orphaned. Rather than follow those thoughts down the spiral of anxiety, stop. Focus on what IS (not what IF).

Anxiety is always going to choose the catastrophic option, so your ability to cope with it is to practice feeling uncomfortable AND doing the behavior that makes us uncomfortable.

This may mean you stop washing your hands after 20 seconds even though that feels uncomfortable. It may mean you turn off your phone’s news notifications even though you feel unsettled that you might miss something. Perhaps you restrict what you click on FB or IG and be willing to sit with all the possibilities of what you’re missing.

Your feelings may tell you that something is risky when, in fact, it just feels risky. It may feel risky not to change and wash your clothes when you come in from being out, but that doesn’t mean it is risky (in terms of virus transmission). Depending on your level of fear, anything may feel risky, so it’s important to differentiate what feels risky to your anxiety from what actually is according to the CDC, WHO and/or your local government. Again, that’s where relying on the guidelines set out by the experts at the CDC, WHO, and local health departments (not those on social media!) are so important.

Often doing and knowing more has a paradoxical effect on anxiety and will actually increase it. Have you ever felt less anxious after doing an internet search triggered by your anxiety? Or after consuming the news for hours?
For parents, I strongly encourage you to be mindful of you’re talking to your kids about this—are you using catastrophic language? Are you modeling reacting based on fear and not facts? While scary, this is also a great opportunity to build and model our tolerating uncertainty and our ability to feel unsettled and still live our lives (versus avoiding based on worry).

I’m here if you want a one-on-one discussion. Please call me.