Keeping Calm Amidst the Coronavirus: How to Manage Stress and Anxiety Related to the Coronavirus
No doubt every headline you read and everywhere you go, people are talking about one hot topic right now: the coronavirus (COVID-19). For very valid reasons, there is a lot of concern out there about how this virus is going to play out internationally, but also on a personal level (i.e., Am I or a loved one going to get the virus?).
As a psychologist, I work with many people struggling with symptoms of anxiety. These symptoms come up for people when they don’t know what is going to happen next. Understandably, the coronavirus has been a topic on many people’s minds now for weeks because of so many unknown variables. It seems that the intensity of these anxiety symptoms in general have heightened with increased information about the virus and cases seen worldwide. In this article, I wanted to share some of the strategies that I use in my treatment with clients on how to manage the unhelpful thoughts and feelings of anxiety related to the coronavirus.
*Note that this article does not give any medical advice about the coronavirus or recommendations on what to do. This is simply about how to manage the very common anxiety symptoms that do come up for most people when they are faced with news or worries about the coronavirus.
How do I know I have anxiety about the coronavirus?
People might experience anxiety in many different ways. Some people experience anxiety in their bodies and might be feeling a lot of tension right now. Others are feeling so anxious at times that they may start having dreams or nightmares about the coronavirus. Most people experience anxiety by worrying about the problem at hand.
The behavior of worry is a way of feeling in control about the problem. When people worry, they believe it gives them power over the situation or that worry will somehow change the outcome of the future. Most people worry from time to time and this is very natural. However, this could become a problem when people start to worry, have difficulty controlling the worry, and notice that the worry is actually causing them distress, creating concentration issues, and making them feel restless.
In the case of the coronavirus, people are feeling that there are a lot of factors outside of their control and are looking for anything to help them stay in control of the situation. While worry may not be so helpful since it does not actually change the end result, problem solving and taking steps to stay safe are very helpful strategies (more on this later).
What can I do if I am feeling anxious about the coronavirus?
The key ingredient for getting through a time like this is to have a balanced view of what is going on. When people are on opposite sides of the spectrum, either being too lax in their thinking or being overly hyper-vigilant about the situation, they have difficulty seeing the reality of the situation (i.e., what is really going on behind the fear, stress and anxiety). Thinking in these two extremes may lead to missing out on the reality of the situation which is usually somewhere in the middle.
A balanced view of the situation means being realistic, or in other words, not holding the belief that everything is either good or bad. It’s living in the reality that every situation has both good and bad parts. With the coronavirus specifically, it would look like knowing the risk factors, asking yourself if you are taking the steps to protect yourself and your community and knowing at the end of the day, you have done everything you can to prevent spreading this illness. There will always be things that feel like are out of your control, but maintaining a balanced view of the current coronavirus situation will allow you to feel like you have a sense of control while also letting go of the things you cannot control at this time.
Realistic optimism is another way of maintaining a balanced view of the situation; it is making a choice to focus on the positives instead of the negatives of a situation. This does not mean ignoring the negatives or living in the fantasy that everything is good, but rather choosing to focus on the positives that are available rather than people's tendency to focus on the negatives that are available.
It is very easy for people to fall into the trap of being scared and fearful of the virus because of how information is being portrayed in some cases. Reading headlines that state, for example, there is another "confirmed" case or the numbers are "rising" are going to keep people focused on the negatives. While it’s important to keep yourself informed, have you actually asked yourself, how helpful is it for me to read these articles?
These headlines are likely increasing your anxiety and keeping you trapped in the "rabbit hole" of fear and a sense of powerlessness. But, if you choose to focus on the aspects of this virus that are positive (yes, there are positive aspects), such as all the people who have recovered successfully from the virus, you will start to develop a different perspective. You will start to maintain a more balanced view of the situation, and live in realistic optimism about the coronavirus.
What are some steps I can take?
The following are some tips and strategies that could keep you in a state of realistic optimism rather than stuck on the negatives of a situation.
Understanding the Anxiety: It’s important to understand where the anxiety is coming from. Anxiety is fear of the unknown; not knowing the outcome of the future, or in this case the coronavirus, which makes most people feel anxious or stressed. The message people get is that there is something out there that they have no control over, and therefore, they need to worry about it to feel as though they have control over it. With this context, it is understandable why people might be experiencing more stress and anxiety about the coronavirus. Having this understanding of where the anxiety is coming from, however, could provide some relief and provide an explanation for why this is happening. There will likely continue to be many unknowns about this virus for some time, so it could be helpful to focus on the things that you do know such as keeping healthy habits, washing your hands, keeping your distance from people, and staying home when you are feeling sick.
Avoiding Unnecessary Worry: While it is imperative to be informed about what is going on and updates about the virus, worry and anxiety often lead to consuming much more information about it (remember the rabbit hole I was talking about earlier?) Even though people want to know more about what is going on and the safety concerns, it’s very important to ask the question, “Is this going to be helpful for me right now?” If the answer is no, then try to avoid any media consumption that will only heighten your anxiety. Focus on media outlets that are factual and have a more neutral tone about the coronavirus. If you know you are the type of person that has an impulse to worry over any piece of news related to the coronavirus, perhaps consider staying away from the media altogether and ask a trusted friend or person in your life to keep you informed about essential news for your own health and safety.
Changing Behaviors: You cannot change the outcome of what is going to happen with this virus, but you can change what you decide to do and take control of your environment. Review the guidelines of your local county or state’s health officials. If they advise staying away from large crowds, keeping your distance in smaller settings, and washing your hands, those are all behaviors that you do have control over and can feel like you are contributing to this situation in a positive way. It may not always feel like it, but you do have control over the behavior of worry. You can choose to worry, or you can try to redirect your view toward a realistic optimism about the situation and focus your energy on problem solving instead.
Accepting that things might get worse before they get better: People can try to avoid unhelpful media outlets, and they can also try to change some of the behaviors and control their environment, but at the end of the day, your perspective about the situation is the most important thing. This virus is likely going to get worse in the upcoming weeks or months, but it will also get better. Maintaining a realistic expectation that you will hear about more and more cases in the upcoming weeks and months will prepare you and lead you down the path of acceptance. History about other health concerns and viruses tells us that these health issues don’t last forever. Being mindful about how you are approaching your life right now and considering whether you can try to work on a change in your behaviors, your worry and most importantly, your perspective can be helpful ways of managing your stress and anxiety.
The main takeaway I would hope for people to get out of reading this article is keeping a very balanced view about this virus. Yes, we all need to take steps by washing our hands, not touching our faces, avoiding large crowded areas, and social distancing in smaller settings; but we also need to have accurate information from the right sources and determine the real risks. You may not need to completely change your daily routine if you are taking the steps to ensure the safety of yourself and those around you. Next time you come across a headline or media outlet about the virus, my hope is that you will pause, ask yourself how helpful it is to view or read the headline, and then make a decision about how that article could benefit you today. Try to avoid making decisions because you are feeling anxious or nervous about something, and start living your life with a balanced perspective and realistic optimism.
If you have additional questions about the coronavirus, refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as your local county and state health guidelines.
*To get more information on how therapy could help your symptoms of stress and anxiety, or making an appointment with me virtually, please see the Contact Me page below.