Managing Anxiety over COVID-19
Since the start of this year, we have witnessed the unfolding of an unprecedented health issue around the world. As Australia begins to take measures to contain risk and protect our health and wellbeing, it is understandable that many of us will be experiencing an increase in anxiety and worry.
Anxiety is the brain’s way of responding to threat. Constant worry, difficulty thinking of anything else, catastrophic or “worst-case scenario” thinking, exaggerated behavioural responses, panic and fear symptoms – as unhelpful as they are – are all part of the brain’s wired threat response system. It is designed to keep you completely focused on the threat in an attempt to avoid it or to problem solve.
Unfortunately, this system, which is great at protecting us from physical threats such as a snake in the grass, is not so effective in times of stress such as these. A little anxiety can be useful. It can help remind us to refrain from touching surfaces, to inhibit hand shaking and to wash our hands. However too much anxiety can make us feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. These 10 tips can help you manage your anxiety about COVID-19.
1. Limit News Checking
When we are anxious, the brain is designed to keep us constantly focused on the threat and vigilant. Constant news checking however, is more likely to increase your anxiety, to increase your perception of threat, and much more likely to make you feel as if you are powerless. In order to curb our temptation to keep checking the news and stay abreast of all the relevant and up-to-date information, we should try and limit our newsfeed to once or twice daily. It would also be a good idea to limit how much time you spend reading, listening to or watching the news.
Make sure to get your news from established, well-respected and fact-based sources of news.
2. Create a Plan
While we don’t want people giving into the catastrophic thoughts or pandering to endless “what if’s”, anxiety is in fact designed to circumvent threats and unwanted experiences. So, we may be able to feel more empowered and prepared if we have a plan for some realistic events. For example, you might want to create a plan on how you plan to cope with social isolation or distancing. This means you’ll need to have a general sense of how you will cope if the kids had to stay home from school, how you should structure your days at home, how you would manage work, chores and keeping in touch with family and close friends. Of course no plan is foolproof and you shouldn’t try to create the perfect plan – having a general guide can help you feel prepared.
The same goes for those who are facing challenging and uncertainty over their finances. For those of you who are dependent on face-to-face contact for your livelihood, you may certainly be facing some tough times. It may be a good time to do a quick budget and savings check, speak with landlords, banks, energy providers etc. and ask what may be available to you if you temporarily lose your income. The reality is that there will be many, many people in the same position as you, and everyone will need to be flexible and compassionate around lost income.
3. Schedule your day (and stick to it)
When we are anxious, the brain is designed to resist allocating attention, concentration or mental resources, to anything other than the threat(s). So even small decisions, such as which email to write first, or what to cook for dinner can seem overwhelming.
Write a schedule for your day. Plan your exercise, work, chores and meals each day. If you are still going to work, plan out your work-day. Make a list of those tasks to tackle first to last. Try to make tasks that are the most challenging first on the list. That way your day will only get easier.
Try to stick to your plan and don’t let anxiety make your decisions for you.
4. Stick to recommended guidelines
There are a number of credible and reliable sources for the most relevant and up-to-date information regarding measures we should be taking to prevent infection. Stick to recommended guidelines and once again avoid the temptation to exaggerate your response by taking measures that far outweigh the measures taken by those close to you.
If you have ever struggled with health anxiety or OCD we know that you are much more likely to experience an exacerbation of your condition. In order to prevent your condition from worsening it is important to schedule a booster session with your psychologist to prevent your symptoms from getting worse.
5. Engage your other interests
Remember our old friend anxiety? Anxiety will likely tempt you to focus exclusively on the coronavirus threat. To ensure that anxiety and worry is not taking control, we should actively plan for, and schedule time to engage in other interests. Perhaps write a list of podcasts you’ve been meaning to listen to, audiobooks, books, videos or TV shows you’ve been meaning to get to. It may be time to try a few new recipes, challenge yourself to daily online yoga or online meditation courses. Keeping your mind stimulated and engaged is one of the best ways of managing anxiety during this time.
If your kids need to be kept home from school, then helping them come up with their own list will help them stay stimulated, challenged and engaged. There’s already an exhaustive list of online resources on social media and blog posts!
It’s no surprise exercise makes it on this list. It is one of the surest ways of managing stress and anxiety. We may need to find ways of getting more creative if we are asked to go into total lockdown, but for now, we are still being encouraged to go outdoors.
Many exercise studios are finding ways to live stream classes or offer online on-demand workouts. If you usually prefer to workout at the gym using equipment, then you could try some different exercise styles. A quick search online should reveal to you a whole world of fitness.
If you struggle to get the kids to workout, why not try some music video routines and have family competitions over who “did it better”! Everyone could get involved and it may be a chance to relieve some cabin fever.
7. Stay Connected to family and friends
Social distancing should not mean emotional isolation. Make dates with friends and family members to have video calls. Rather than just trying to chat through the phone see if you can set the tv or the home computer so that it is easier to feel that you are chatting in the same room.
If you live alone it may be useful to let friends know that you may need to rely on them a little more than usual – you’re not getting your usual social fix from work, gym or outings. So be mindful of how important connection is to decrease risks of mood deterioration.
8. Practice Self-Care
It’s important to recognize that you are going through quite a bit at the moment. This is an unprecedented and uncertain time. It is absolutely okay to be feeling anxious, vulnerable and pessimistic. Do not blame yourself for this. Part of self-care is recognizing that we are not in control of how we think and feel only of the choices we make.
During this hard time we can choose to create some space to meditate, to self reflect, to keep healthy, to be kind to ourselves. Set the playlist to something uplifting and soothing. Make sure you are eating nutritious and nourishing meals and exercising.
9. Positive Self-Talk
In addition to practicing better self-care, take some notice of your internal chatter or the voice in your head. How are you speaking to yourself? If you find that you are being overly catastrophic, pessimistic or what-if-ing, you may be increasing your worry.
Many experts have warned that there is an uncertain period of time ahead of us. It is best that we prepare for the mid to long-term and so therefore we must find the resilience, patience and fortitude to move through this.
Try and encourage self-talk that is more resilient, patient and optimistic. Not just blind optimism, but the optimism based on the fact that at some point there will be an end to this, life will resume and we will head towards the future. Enough time will pass for this to have been a significant but overall blip in our lives.
If you are struggling to maintain any positive or reassuring self-talk then perhaps you could reach out to a wise friend or even a psychologist. It is extremely important to prioritise your mental health and well-being during this time.
In addition to positive self-talk also expose yourself to more positive talk from the outside. Look out for stories of positivity during this time. There are a number of feel-good stories making the rounds on social media. Make sure you spread these stories when discussing things with friends or families. Focusing on the good will alert you to find it.
You may also want to find a way to be of some good yourself. Acts of kindness during times of stress and difficulties can help us feel empowered and connected to those around us.
10. Get professional help
These are uncertain times and the long-term impact of the Coronavirus will be difficult to predict. If your anxiety or mood is deteriorating it is perfectly understandable. Getting some professional counseling by a trained psychologist can give you the tools to help you through this time. Most psychologists would be happy to provide online treatment for you at this time.
The Australian government has provided for online psychological sessions to be available for all those meeting criteria for self isolation or for those considered to be at high risk. Please check with your GP and psychologist for more information.