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The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just a disease outbreak — it’s also become a catalyst of emotional and mental pressure for everyone. Believe it or not, there can be some relief in that. Because it means you are not alone in your newfound coronavirus anxiety and stress right now.
Many people across the world are experiencing similar levels of emotional stress. This may show up as increased concern over your health or others’ health, disturbed sleep, or even substance use. But there are ways to manage and alleviate the stressors and bring balance back into your life.
Feeling helpless is completely normal, but know that you aren’t helpless. You don’t have to let anxiety determine your experience. Here’s how to reassess the ways coronavirus-induced anxiety is showing up in your life and how being firm and kind to yourself will help.
One of anxiety’s greatest party tricks is making you think 10 steps ahead. Are you coping with the outbreak by downplaying its impact? Or maybe you’re just waiting it out and discovering that all you feel is anxious.
If so, you may find relief in practicing radical acceptance, which is the acceptance of the unchangeable (emotions, thoughts, and situations).
While the pandemic is not something we can change overnight, our individual actions, like social distancing and/or isolation, may collectively move the needle. The trick is not to expect the immediate results we’re hardwired to expect from fast technology. Accepting the fact that part of your journey is to wait and take one day at a time may help your mind shift from a less passive state.
How does radical acceptance help?
Radical acceptance in therapy helps patients with PTSD accept painful memories of traumatic events instead of avoiding or rejecting them. In a 2017 study, participants who practiced radical acceptance saw a significant decline in feelings of shame, guilt, disgust, distress, and fear.
Staying in the know can be a form of control, but there’s a limit to how much news can change. If you’re constantly scrolling, looking for a new update or a clue that life will return to normal soon, this habit is likely making your anxiety worse. Refreshing tabs may also be a result of feeling paralyzed and not knowing what to do next.
Taking a break from social media and news may help your brain focus on other tasks. There’s plenty you can still do without knowing the latest update.
Tips on staying informed but not overly informed:
1. Schedule times to check the news, or download website blockers that limit how much time you spend on news sites.
2. Follow the WHO recommendations of limiting news intake to once or twice a day. Or try not checking for the entire day.
3. Stick to reputable health organizations like the WHO, the CDC, and other health experts.
4. Rely on friends you trust to keep you in the know.
Making a list of the things you can control helps put your anxieties and actions into perspective. You can’t control the virus, but you can minimize the spread of it through prevention practices and by staying at home. But control isn’t only about prevention and reducing your own risk of being infected.
If you have anxiety, control is also about preparing for disruption and recognizing how much preparation is necessary before it only contributes to your anxiety. For example, you can’t stop a recession, but you can create a plan for saving cash or do research on resources you may need if you lose income.
A good place to start is writing down a list of ways you think the pandemic or the new coronavirus may change your life that make you feel uncomfortable.
Questions to help determine what helps:
- What are you afraid will happen?
- What kinds of actions have direct influence or outcomes? What kinds don’t?
- Does this require controlling or managing how other people will respond? (If yes, leave it off the list!)
- Can bigger worries be broken down into smaller, actionable steps?
In times of uncertainty, emotional repression may actually affect your health negatively. Keeping a calm demeanor may be helpful when interacting with children or family members, but remember to let yourself feel the weight of reality too.
As long as your emotions don’t drive you to negatively impact others, there’s no wrong way to feel. Through a moment of mindfulness, you may even discover that your anxiety is actually panic, anger, sadness, stress, depression, or disappointment in disguise. It could be a mixture of all those emotions.
Breaking them all down and naming them can help you plan ahead or find ways to distract or reassure yourself. For example, if you’re dealing with feelings of guilt because you can’t self-isolate, being confident in your prevention precautions may help alleviate those feelings.
The new coronavirus is likely an addition to the existing sources of anxiety in your life. It may be dominating our lives right now, but that doesn’t mean other anxieties are less important.
The world, and life, is still going on, so attributing all your emotions to the virus outbreak may actually hinder you from finding relief — especially if you were working on self-growth and other forms of therapy prior to all *gestures wildly at everything* this.
Focusing on other anxieties can be a bit of a double-edged sword, but knowing you have other areas to work on or cross off your list could also be a soothing distraction from the constant news about the new coronavirus. Even during a pandemic, you still deserve to thrive.
Because anxiety often activates our flight-or-fight mode, it can feel like you constantly want to take action. Beyond making plans and checking off tasks on your to-do list, try focusing on activities that help distract you. You may find that breaking the anxiety cycle is what you need to find relief for the day.
Some distracting activity options:
- cleaning the house or doing the dishes
- watching a humorous movie or TV show
- engaging in aerobic exercise or a gentle yoga routine
- deep breathing, meditation, reflection time, or a nap
Turning to others for help and discussion can be a great way to get a weight lifted off your chest. Don’t simply throw out a thought into the ether, as this could cause other people to spiral alongside you. Instead, give them a heads-up so they know you are asking for help or a connection.
But, whether it’s a friend or a family member, try not to rely on one person for constant, continuous help. Offer to listen to their worries and anxieties in return. Sometimes, hearing that you’re both in the same boat can bring some comfort.
After a few days, it may also be time to pull back from letting the new coronavirus be the primary topic of conversation.
Ways to connect from afar:
- Send a calendar schedule for intentional phone conversations.
- Exercise together by signing up for the same online classes.
- Download games or video apps to watch movies together.
- Make time to talk about joyful or comforting things.
As we enter new times of uncertainty and self-isolation, it’s important to build a routine so there’s structure, normalcy, and comfort in your day-to-day. For example, taking structured breaks can help signal your brain to shift gears and focus on the task at hand.
Keeping up a routine is also a way of taking care of your physical and mental health, one day or hour at a time, so you aren’t overloading yourself with work, tasks, or worry.
Routines to establish and break up your day:
- consistent breakfast, lunch, and dinner times
- a regular sleep schedule
- intentional exercise time
- daily or weekly cleaning
- setting specific times for non-coronavirus-related tasks
With calls for social distancing and self-isolation, it can be easy to feel guilty, like you’re not doing enough or could be doing more. But it’s important to remember that in the time of a pandemic, solutions are not created by one person. Solutions are found when we come together and pull our weight.
Your weight, depending on your family situation or work requirements, may differ from other people’s. It’s important to take care of yourself first, and sometimes taking care of yourself — such as by practicing prevention — is how you take care of others. Your progress and contribution don’t have to look exactly the same as those of other people.
Being kind to yourself can look like:
- allowing yourself to feel anxiety-inducing emotions such as panic, anger, or fear
- avoiding comparing your capability to that of others, especially based on limited interactions like work conference calls
- recognizing and honoring your mental and emotional limits
- taking a pause away from social media and focusing on yourself
- making a daily list of when or how you felt your best
Anxiety, especially in isolation, can bring up a lot of pent-up energy. This stored energy may show up as other forms of emotion, such as anger, irritation, or worry. If you find yourself spiraling and at a loss for how to move forward, go for a walk (without your phone) or try an online exercise class. Get your body moving in a way that matches your heart rate.
Research shows that exercise, especially consistent exercise, can help reduce anxiety. Even if exercise is already a part of your routine, if you’re feeling too anxious to focus on the task at hand, take a 30-minute break to sweat it out.
Online therapy is available even when in-person is not. You may be able to find local providers who have switched to telecommuting so you can ease into in-person sessions when all this is over — but don’t let the change of venue be a reason you don’t get help right now.
Countries around the world have set up hotlines for people who need psychological support at this time. For New Yorkers, there’s a hotline (844-863-9314) for folks who feel their mental health is being affected by the pandemic.
With anxiety running high during this time, you may notice the way it affects your actions. A therapist can help you by using CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) techniques. This method of therapy can help you identify how your thoughts and emotions impact your actions and how you can stop yourself from spiraling.
Christal Yuen is a senior editor at Greatist, covering all things beauty and wellness. Find her musing about therapy on Twitter.