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How to Cope with Anxiety from the Coronavirus

Tips from a Board-Certified Psychiatrist

As death tolls rise from the global spread of a novel coronavirus, I have observed an increase in anxiety among my patients. To some degree, the increase in anxiety is appropriate to the context. Our anxiety increases when we are confronted with threats to our health. The coronavirus constitutes such a threat. 

In this article, I present tips to help you cope with the increased anxiety stemming from the coronavirus.

  • 1. Understand the Odds

We often experience spikes in anxiety when we believe that a threat is imminent and unavoidable. Considering the extensive media coverage over the coronavirus, it may appear that the overall risk of being infected is very high. 

A good practice to lower your anxiety is understanding what are the odds that your fear will become reality. Recognizing that there is a low probability that a fear will become reality reduces anxiety. 

For example, let’s imagine that you identify a lump on your body and are concerned that it is cancer. You then follow up with your physician. You will experience a different level of anxiety if your physician reassures you that the mass has a 1% probability of being cancer compared to being told that there is a 90% probability that the mass is cancer.

As of March 26, 2020, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the immediate risk of being exposed to this virus is still low for most Americans. Accepting this fact lowers anxiety. 

  • 2. Recognize What You Can Control

The continued coverage over the spreading coronavirus can make us feel helpless and powerless. One may feel that taking any action is futile. Such a stance will only exacerbate one’s level of anxiety over the potential threat.

Take a moment to recognize what is within your sphere of control. You can take action to promote your safety and protect your loved ones. Taking such action does not only lower the odds that you will be infected. It can also make you feel empowered and give you a sense of control over the potential threat. 

The CDC has published guidelines to protect the public from being infected and further spread the coronavirus. They include:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoid touching your face, nose and eyes with unwashed hands.
  • Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. 
  • Put distance between yourself and other people if the virus is spreading in your community.

Please familiarize yourself with the CDC recommendations. Also, follow recommendations from your healthcare provider and adhere to state orders. This will help keep you and others in your community safe.

  • 3. Increase “The Dose” of Your Coping Skills

The use of healthy coping skills is critical for the management of anxiety. Using your coping skills becomes even more critical during times of heightened stress. Some of my favorite coping skills include:

  • Exercise
  • Journaling my thoughts and feelings
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Meditation

During times of heightened stress, you may consider increasing “the dose” of your coping skills by using them more frequently. For example, if you typically exercise three times per week, you may exercise an extra day to better cope with anxiety. If you normally practice deep breathing exercises in the morning and at night, you may add a third session during lunch.

We are accustomed to increasing the dose of a medication to treat a physical or mental health ailment. Why not look at coping skills from the same perspective and adjust “their dose” as necessary?

  • 4. Limit Media Consumption

Remember that the media is in the business of making money. Their goal is to earn ratings. As a result, they may not always present the news objectively but in a manner that elicits an emotional reaction out of you. As the saying goes, “Sensationalism Sells.”

If you want to stay updated on the latest news related to the coronavirus, do not blindly search for updates on the internet. Rather, follow credible sources such as the CDC or the World Health Organization (WHO). You can also contact your local healthcare provider.

  • 5. Do not Isolate

Remember that we are all in this together. We are all affected in some manner from the global pandemic. Practicing social distancing is not an invitation to socially isolate.

Pick up your phone and reach out to your loved ones. Use available technology to video chat with them. Designate a time every day that you devote to connecting with family and friends. 

  • 6. Recognize the Cost of Anxiety

Our brains are really good at focusing on potential threats. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is what our brains are supposed to do. They are not designed to make us happy. They are designed to protect us by looking for potential threats and creating hypothetical “what if” scenarios. As a result, we often fail to maintain perspective and see the big picture.

However, excessive anxiety comes as a cost. There is a cost if we become prisoners to the fear stemming from the spreading coronavirus. This interferes with the quality of our lives. Hence, we have to find the balance between taking the necessary precautions to protect ourselves and living fulfilling lives.

As personal examples, my family has enjoyed playing in our yard rather than attend crowded playgrounds. We also go on frequent family walks rather than attend play dates. I believe that such adjustments strike the proper balance between living a full life and also responding to the threat from the coronavirus in a responsible way.

To summarize, please take the proper precautions to protect yourself and others in your community from the coronavirus. However, do not fall prisoner to the anxiety stemming from the virus. Use your coping skills wisely, limit media coverage and live your life to the fullest of your ability. 

Finally, if your anxiety symptoms are interfering with your daily functioning or you are experiencing difficulties with physical symptoms, please contact your local healthcare provider or mental health professional for further help. In case of a mental health emergency, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency department

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