Since December of last year, we have been bombarded with news about the COVID-19 virus that is impacting the world. The number of people infected and the rate at which it has spread has caused an increase in cognizance of how and with whom we interact. This awareness isn’t necessarily distressing but it can increase feelings of unease and anxiety. In the extreme, stress levels intensify beyond our ability to function normally. This impacts daily life through sleeplessness, social isolation, perseverating thoughts and lack of focus.
When discussing anxiety that centers around health and well-being we often think of hypochondriasis (Illness Anxiety Disorder); however the anxiety that has arisen due to the emergence of COVID-19 differs in that it is not generalized worry about becoming ill without an identified focus; there is a specific threat. To some extent, concern and awareness of it are warranted. The goal should not be to ignore or make ourselves wrong for the concern but to manage it and prevent excess worry from running our lives. To manage the stress around the identified concern it is important to recognize what we can and cannot control.
To alleviate the stresses brought on by this epidemic we can shift behaviors to ensure that we are more resilient both physically and mentally. Doing this can include habits such as: eating healthy foods, exercising, getting enough sleep and engaging with others socially. These types of habits will assist with all forms of anxiety and therefore they are practices that should be part of our daily routine regardless.
Another way in which we can ensure that we are taking control of behavioral changes and preventing exposure can include washing our hands thoroughly, being mindful of using hand sanitizer when we don’t have access to soap and water and wearing a face mask when we are feeling sick or have a cold. All of these activities will help make you feel a bit more at ease when having to be out in public and interacting with others.
A key behavioral modification to institute if you are feeling anxious about COVID-19 is limiting your exposure to an overload of information. In our world of smartphones and sensational news, information overload is a daily occurrence for most of us. Limiting our exposure to the news cycles regarding COVID-19 can provide a break from increasing our excessive worry and misinformation. Putting down the phone, turning off the television, not clicking on the news sites on your home screen, are all ways that you can reduce anxiety about COVID-19 exposure. In order to stay informed while also limiting exposure to anxiety producing news feeds, try checking information on reputable sources only once a day. Reputable reporting sources include the WHO, Singapore Ministry of Health, CNN and AlJazeera news.
Once you have shifted your behaviors to address things you control, it is important to look at practices that can assist you in finding comfort with the unknown and managing stress about the things that are out of your control. Practices that work to address all anxieties are mindfulness practices such as meditation, journaling and breathing techniques.
Although meditation can be tough to begin when you are feeling anxious, there are apps that can guide you by giving your mind focus, apps such as “Calm” and “headspace” are helpful to walk you through an experience to focus your mind on other things. Journaling about your concerns and anxieties is a great way to get them out of your head and on to paper, practicing journaling allows for you to reread about your anxiety and begin to get a different perspective; once you write down your fears and get clear you can begin to question their benefit to you. Another mindfulness practice that can reduce feelings of anxiety are breathing techniques…allowing yourself to breathe deeply for a five-count inhale and five-count exhale. Any time you are able to focus on your breathing will help to ensure that you are more able to relax during times that anxiety has increased.
Being concerned during this time is not unusual nor are you alone in your concern, we all have to be more aware when out in public and making plans but we don’t have to let it stop us from living our lives fully. There are things within our control and those that are not. Getting clear on what we can do to minimize our exposure and the exposure of our loved ones is important to maintaining our sense of well-being and peace; when that is not enough to assuage your fears, engage in practices that help calm your mind and get present with your thoughts. This will help reduce the anxiety around those things that are out of our control. Remember when dealing with COVID-19 control those things that you can and let go of those things that you can’t. Worrying won’t change the circumstances or the impact of the virus. Be mindful, be prepared and be safe.
Marriage and Family Therapist