Managing Anxiety During COVID-19 By Charity Hagains MA, LPC-S
And so it begins… COVID-19 is upon us, and our world looks decidedly different than it did a month or even a week ago. If you are a person who is already predisposed to anxiety, recent events have likely heightened that feeling in a number of ways.
Let me start out by admitting, in full transparency, that I am one of those people. I have battled anxiety my entire adult life. It’s a big part of why I became a therapist. I have spent 30 years learning what anxiety is on a physiological, cognitive, and emotional level. I am grateful for the years I have dedicated to understanding this disorder. That time has given me an immense arsenal to fight the thoughts and feelings associated with anxiety, and provided me with necessary tools for prevention. It has afforded me an opportunity to help others in a way that goes beyond empathy, to a deep understanding of shared experience. I say all of that to ensure you that I get how this pandemic can wreak havoc on those who are fighting feelings of irrational fear on a daily basis.
Here is a sentiment I have heard twice a day everyday for about 3 weeks. “Coronavirus is coming and I’m scared. I started stockpiling water, rice, beans, and medicine. I told my (fill in the tribe members here) what I was doing and how scared I was and instead of telling me I’m nuts, they said “maybe stockpiling is a good idea!” This last part isn’t said with excitement, it’s said with trepidation. Their faces are sad and fearful. See, when you’re an anxious person you get used to people telling you you’re crazy. You yourself know that you are catastrophizing the situation and that your concern is unreasonable. Hearing a person tell you why your feelings are “extra” and “not necessary” has likely become a litmus test. So upon hearing that these non-anxious people are concerned, your anxiety spikes. That’s even before the population at large loses their shit. Which brings us to today.
Schools close, stores close, your boss tells you to work from home. Toilet paper is a prime commodity (for no reason whatsoever), and finding fresh bread is like finding a four leaf clover. The government places travel bans, and other countries are straight up closed for the first time in our lifetime. NPR, CNN, Fox News, NBC, and CBS all relay 24 hour coverage of the spread of the infection. They tell us how serious it is and how bad it could get, but even those predictions don’t stand against the apocalyptic fear that anxiety has placed into your mind. You can imagine worse, and thus you are planning for it. The entire world just confirmed you aren’t crazy. You are smart, prepared, and knew what was coming.
Here’s the thing. NO. Nope you didn’t. As much as I would like to tell you that you are prophetic, you aren’t. Anxiety breeds like bacteria, so of course you conceived the worst. Of course you planned and have already emotionally experienced the fall out. I hate that this experience has validated your anxiety, but I know it has. I also know how hard you have been fighting internally to not validate anxiety. If you have been in our offices, you have learned how to recognize anxious thoughts as just that, anxious thoughts, instead of reality or truth. However, this moment in our society has you questioning things. That’s why I’m writing this. I want to help you sift through the anxious thoughts and feelings and discern those from the reality. I aim to help you operate on a level of realism that is more firmly based in the here and now vs. the imagined catastrophized future that anxiety likes to pull us towards.
Start by paying close attention to changes in your body. It can be easy to get lost in thoughts and not realize how amped up you’re becoming. For that reason, monitoring changes in your body can be helpful so that you can change your line of thinking.
Once you are able to realize that you have ventured into an anxious narrative you can then begin to pull back from that. Statements such as: “These are scary feelings and I do not want to be afraid.” “I do not choose to keep feeling like this.” “I’m not required to think this through.” “I don’t have to figure it all out right now, or ever.” “I don’t need to understand.” can be very helpful for turning your thoughts back towards the here and now.
Anxiety usually tells us we “need to figure it out.” No, you really don’t. Most likely there is nothing you can do to actually figure out the circumstance. There is no definitive way to know if you or a loved one will contract this virus or how you will feel if you do. There just isn’t. So spending your precious mental energy on it isn’t going to help. Accepting that this is a situation that is happening, and you are limited in your ability to change that fact can help calm your inner anxious voice and begin a new narrative.
It’s important that the new narrative is positive and realistic. No, it doesn’t mean you have to delude yourself into believing everything is A-okay. It’s not okay, and pretending it is would be a lie that you couldn’t force yourself to believe. However, while the situation we find our world in right now is concerning, you actually are okay. Right at this moment, nothing horrible is happening to you directly. Right in the moment, you are gifted with an opportunity for peace.
Write this new narrative with ideas such as, “I can’t control the entire situation, but I can totally control my small corner of the world.” “I can’t force others to make changes, but I can be in control of my choices. I can wash my hands, ensure I have a reasonable amount of supplies, and social distance. Those are things within my power that I’m doing.”
Most importantly remember that, much like the toilet paper shortage, these feelings and circumstances are temporary. We never believe that our happiness will last forever and the situations we enjoy will never end. We do that with fear. We mistakenly believe that our hurting will continue indefinitely. It won’t. As you begin to change your narrative and interrupt the anxious thoughts, your feelings will begin to change and then your behaviors. By taking control over your anxious thinking you put logic back in the driver’s seat.
If you are still feeling overwhelmed I can’t encourage you enough to seek support. The therapists at Noyau are specially trained in anxiety disorder treatment, and we are available for phone or video sessions, as well as in office appointments.