Across America and the globe, folks are being asked to stay inside and away from crowds to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus. This means no bars, theatre shows, Disneyland trips, or family dinners at your favourite restaurant. It also means a lot of anxiety.
The more the COVID-19 pandemic impacts our daily lives, the more panic we feel about the various ramifications of it. We’re worried about our own health and that of our loved ones. We’re concerned about paying the rent, the future of our financial portfolios, and where our next pay cheque is coming from. Some even have an added layer of thinking about being discriminated against, since the illness has brought out racism and prejudice in some people.
This is enough to make anyone feel anxious, and can worsen symptoms of the roughly 40 million adults in the US who already suffer from anxiety disorders, explains Neda Gould, PhD, a clinical psychologist, director of the Mindfulness Program at Johns Hopkins, and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “In a situation like our current one, some health anxiety is expected,” she says.
“In some individuals this can be quite impairing. It can [lead to] excessive and chronic worry, sleep disturbance.” Meanwhile, some people are experiencing more minor symptoms.
But no matter how you’re feeling your anxiety or why, it’s more crucial than ever to implement stress-reducing and anxiety-busting strategies, explains Anabel Basulto, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Kaiser Permanente. “These are different times, and we’ve never experienced anything like this,” she says. “But it’s important to focus on — not what you’re experiencing — but what can you do about it. On finding a solution. Yes, the anxiety is going to be there for a while, but it’s about the steps you take to resolve it — how do you turn something negative into a positive.”
This is easier said than done, so we’ve asked psychologists and mental health experts for tips to help relieve your tension, regardless of what's fueling it, during these unprecedented times in modern history.
Gould recommends mindfulness meditation — which involves bringing awareness to your thoughts and accepting them, rather than just trying to “clear the mind” — as a tool to help you cope. This is as good a time as any to try a 30-day meditation challenge, like the one Lauren Ash, founder of Black Girl In Om, previously crafted for Refinery29.
Try Online Therapy
“I think it’s important to reach out and ask for help when you need it,” Basulto says. “Talk to a doctor, to your friends, and don’t be afraid to admit you’re in trouble. A lot of people have shame around these mental health topics, and we need to remember that it’s okay to normalise it and talk about it.”
If you already go to a therapist, she recommends trying to see them over Skype. You can also sign up for apps such as Talkspace that connect you with therapists via text and video chat.
Limit your health news intake to 20 minutes at a time
If you’re constantly reading depressing news article after news article, you can spiral quickly. Only read this kind of information for 20 minutes at a time, and try to break things up with happier stories — or at least pieces that aren’t about the coronavirus.
Know your worse case scenario plan
Because the coronavirus is impacting the economy, and because many people can’t work or are being laid off during social distancing, it can feel easy to panic about your future — but don't, explains Brad Klontz, PsyD, CFP, a financial psychologist and an associate professor of financial psychology and behavioural finance at Creighton University. He recommends looking at your accounts, and getting real with yourself about how long you can make it without a salary.
He says it can also actually reduce anxiety to do an exercise called “worse case scenario.”
“Let’s say that you did lose your job, couldn’t get unemployment, and couldn’t pay your bills: What’s the plan?” he asks. “Know what it is. For a lot of people, you’d go and live with someone you really love and care about. And for a lot of people, this would be a blow to the ego, but is it really all that bad?”
"Our brain goes to: This is a matter of life and death," Klontz continues of the financial ramifications of coronavirus. "But in most cases, you realise it's not. If you don't have anyone to go to, then what happens? You have to look at social services. It's not going to be fun, but you could probably survive."
Communicate with your workplace
“I think most people's work has been disrupted in some way and so it's understandable and expected for individuals to have work-related anxiety,” Gould says. “I think it's important to stay in contact with your place of employment and get updated information to help reduce some of the uncertainty when possible.”
Look at the bright side of things
So, there’s health anxiety, general anxiety, financial anxiety. and then there’s “market anxiety,” about the economy, explains Brad Klontz.
“When you see that the market is down 10%, that of course is scary,” he says. “But chances are, your 401K is not down 10%.” It’s good to actually look at your own individual asset allocations. “Look at what percentage of your 401K or investment is in stocks, and what percentage is bonds or cash,” he advises. “When you separate bonds and stocks into buckets, it really helps, because you’ll see: Oh, my bonds are only down in single digits, percentage-wise... That way you're not as attached to the alarming headlines seeing the stock market has dropped X percent.”
Plus, if you already have a 401K and you’re young, you don’t plan to touch it for a long time. Then, Klontz explains, this kind of economic crash has an up-side for you.
“I encourage young people to just get really excited about this from a financial standpoint,” he says. Basically, you'll now be able to buy into the stock market at a very low price.
Remember that this isn’t permanent
Yes, the economy isn’t looking good, and, yes, we’re all on edge right now. But Klontz says that we have to keep in mind that things will get better. “We’re in the midst of it, and we hear that it’s gonna get worse,” Klontz says. “But I don’t see any evidence suggesting that it won’t get better. It’s really interesting to see the world coming together around this and the fact that people are self quarantining, and they’re doing that out of personal vulnerability but also out of a sense of community, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
With this in mind, keep planning for the future — both financially and in general.
Isolation-fueled and general anxiety
Stay in touch
Basulto says it’s a good time to lean on and check in with loved ones. Set up Skype or FaceTime dates with people you’d usually see in person, or even old friends you haven’t caught up with in a while. You can also use technology to your advantage by playing video games that let you interact with your friends, or planning “movie nights” where you all watch the same Netflix film together and hop on a call afterwards to discuss.
Get outside (while still social distancing)
Getting fresh air will do you good, if your circumstances permit it, Gould says. Take a walk in an area that isn’t crowded or go for a run outside in the park. This doesn’t involve touching anything, and is great for your mental and physical health.
Finish that project
“Think about any projects or hobbies that can keep you occupied that you would otherwise not have time to do,” Gould recommends. That could mean crafts, picking up the piano again, or re-grouting the tiles in your bathroom.
Know you’re not alone.
When you’re cooped up in your home all by yourself, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one who’s freaking out. But know that it’s not just you. Gould says: “I think it's important to remember that we are all affected by this and in it together.”
The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. It says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.