Having to live through a global pandemic has been — let's face it — pretty rough. The United States, along with the rest of the world, went into a lockdown with no end in sight, and there's another quarantine on the horizon as cases continue to rise. Almost 240,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19 in the U.S., and we still don't know all that much about the virus that's taken over 2020 — or what repercussions will come from it in the future. That's enough to make anyone feel stressed and anxious, and for those suffering with anxiety, it's been an incredibly tough year.
Morgan, 24, who has Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), tells us that 2020 has been pretty traumatic for her. "I think the hardest part was not knowing when the quarantine would end and the unknown of it all," she tells us.
Kayla, 22, says both she and her father had to check into the hospital for mental health reasons this year. "To say the least, it's been rough," she tells us. "Since COVID hit it's been a downward spiral for both of us. Not being able to get out of the house was a big problem for us."
Dana Udall, PhD, trained psychologist and chief clinical officer at Ginger, says that for those with existing anxiety, COVID has exacerbated their symptoms. "It's easy to understand why," she tells Refinery29. "When you think of the social isolation, being at home, having limited opportunities for self care..." Dr. Udall says that the isolation mixed with the fear of contracting or spreading the virus also plays into the increasing feelings of anxiety. And, like Morgan said, the fear of the unknown.
"As humans, we like to be able to control and predict things," Dr. Udall says. "We often think of it as anticipatory worry — anticipating things in the future. When we don't have a sense of when we'll be able to go back to working in person or when COVID will end or when will we have a vaccine, it's really common for anxiety to come up."
Ahead, we break down advice from Dr. Udall on how to cope with anxiety in the midst of a global pandemic, what's working for real women, and how we can all move forward despite the unknown.
Establish a routine
Dr. Udall says that having a routine and establishing structure can be extremely beneficial to anxiety-prone people living through the pandemic. "Focus on what's within our control," she advises. "With COVID and the election, it feels like we don't have control over anything in our world." Even the simple things, like setting aside five minutes to meditate in the morning or planning a socially distant walk with a friend every day or every few days, are patterns Dr. Udall says can help decrease anxiety and give a sense of regularity and control.
For Morgan, taking long walks with her dog and scheduling time to catch up with her friends have been incredibly helpful for her. "For an individual with clinical anxiety, the lack of control over a situation is typically difficult and was the hardest part for me," Morgan says. Kayla says that she also feels much better since getting back to her routine of going to work and school. "The pandemic made me feel trapped and helpless," she says.
But, with the threat of another quarantine, Kayla is preparing for a second lockdown with a regimented routine filled with exercise and meditation. "I know for me and my dad, having a routine keeps us in order," she says. "That's why when this happened the first time, we didn't know how to handle it. We're still trying to get over the feeling of being trapped. I think with mental health, having a routine is the best care you can have."
Make self care a priority
For Morgan S., 21, something as simple as painting her nails soothes her anxiety. "It helps so much," she says. "I tried to think of low-cost routines that might help make me feel more present, and this was one. I actually like doing my nails now."
Taking time to distance yourself from the chaos of the world around you could be just what you need to get through the day. "It's extremely important for people to find time for themselves," Dr. Udall agrees. "It might mean painting their nails, it might mean going on a hike, it might mean writing in a journal. There are lots of different ways of carving that time out so we're not just giving, giving, giving until we're depleted."
Seek professional help
Dr. Udall says talking to a coach or therapist can also be a powerful and necessary tool for those who are experiencing anxiety. Due to the pandemic, more professionals are incorporating accessible telemedicine into their practices. "I started back up with therapy this past summer," Julia, 23, tells Refinery29. All of her teletherapy calls ended up being free with her insurance up until November 9, which has lifted a temporary financial burden off of her shoulders. "Since therapy can be so expensive, it's been great," she says. "I think that without therapy and the practices my therapist taught me, I would be living in my head way too much and be panicking regularly."
Julia says that the pandemic has made her feel incredibly isolated, but through therapy, she's learning how to cope. "I've learned that everyone in the world is dealing with this together, and I can't compare the way I'm handling this issue with how others are handling it," she says.
Karina, 27, has been seeing her therapist regularly for about two years for anxiety. But this year, she says she's been having a hard time maintaining a routine — something that's always brought her peace when she's needed it most. "[My therapist] says that because I'm an empath, I sometimes have the tendency to 'absorb' emotions around me," Karina says. "Even some sad news — which there's too much of nowadays — can be enough to really stick with me and affect my mood." For now, Karina is trying to journal more often, and to meditate for at least 10 minutes a day.
If you're seeking professional help, there are tons of free mental health apps you can check out, including BetterHelp or TalkSpace. Mental Health America also recommends checking out platforms like HelpPro or Psychology Today to find therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists in your area who can help create the best treatment plan for you.
Plan things to look forward to
We can't control how the pandemic will play out — when it'll end, when things will get back to normal, or when it'll stop dominating our day-to-day lives. But we can focus our energy on other more positive things in the future.
Morgan points to looking forward to time with her family as something that's helped her cope with anxiety. "Being able to sit down with my family for dinner is something we never had time for before all of this," Morgan says. "I think having things to look forward to and people to speak to and cleaning and getting rid of excess in your life helps me breathe a little easier."
Dr. Udall says that focusing on the things we can do can be really empowering, especially right now. Whether it's scheduling a phone call with a friend or planning a safe weekend getaway for a reset, having something to look forward to can lift our spirits and give us hope (not fear) about the future.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.