How to Manage Coronavirus Anxiety

Protect your mental health during this overwhelming time.

Posted Mar 23, 2020

These days, it’s impossible to scroll through your news feed, turn on the TV, or even talk with friends without COVID-19 being the topic in the spotlight. Coronavirus seems to be all we can think and talk about. Public messages take all kinds of forms—informed logic, panicked alarm, stubborn denial, and even outright absurd speculation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has officially designated the novel coronavirus as a pandemic. How can one stay calm and carry on when your safety (and that of your friends and family) is potentially at risk, daily life has taken an isolating turn, and uncertainty rules the day?

The truth of the matter is, we're all in the midst of a crisis, and it's hard to pinpoint when things will get better. That uncertainty may mean a lot of worries are suddenly competing for your attention. As you get used to what will be the new normal at least for a while, these tips will help you cope.

1. Limit your news consumption to a few trustworthy official sources.

The more we discuss COVID-19, the more conflicting information we uncover. The virtual landscape and social media are filled with unreliable information sources, rumors, bold but unscientific opinions, and even downright harmful "advice." (No, you can't cure or prevent coronavirus by drinking bleach or snorting cocaine!)

Consuming content like this from unreliable sources can lead to a downward spiral where you’re not sure what information is fact and what is fiction. Even if you don't take bad advice, obsessively following the news and spending a lot of time dwelling on coronavirus isn't helpful. In fact, that loop playing on repeat in your head can sink you into thinking traps that exaggerate the risk. Your obsession with all things coronavirus could take you away from meaningful activities, and that keeps your mood trapped in worry.

Combat this by picking one or two reliable sources from which to get your information and news. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is an excellent resource for coronavirus updates. Your local health official's website is another good place to stay updated about what's happening in your own community.

These resources are here for you, so utilize them and their guidelines! But stop there. Avoid looking down the rabbit hole of news pieces, social media, and the like. If you're tempted, ask yourself whether reading your seventh alarmist article or checking infection stats for the fourth time today is actually helping you be safer or just feeding your panic.

2. If you're homebound, try to stay physically and mentally active.

In the past few days and weeks, a large majority of us have been asked to work from home. Many public gatherings and events have been canceled to help "flatten the pandemic curve" and slow the spread of COVID-19. You may have even opted to self-quarantine.

We’re all making a lot of lifestyle shifts, including hunkering down and staying home. Cabin fever is real! The monotony of staying in one place can wear on anyone's mental well-being.

Now is a good time to maintain exercise routines, or even pick up a new one to do at home. Try to get outside to places that aren't crowded. (Of course, follow social distancing guidelines and use common-sense precautions.) If you have a yard, try taking up gardening. Have a balcony? Start a small container herb garden or work outside for a few hours each day.

It’s also very important to see the sun—indirectly, of course. (Please don't look directly at the sun!) Ideally, you’ll go outside. But if you can’t, try to at least be near a bright window as much as possible. Bright light prevents your circadian rhythm from flattening out. Sunlight entering through the eyes is the strongest cue for your brain to know what time of day or night it is. The clearer the message you give to the circadian clock in your brain, the healthier and happier you’ll be.

3. Stay socially active, too.

We’ve been encouraged to keep our distance from others as the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19. And yes, we should all do our part to make that happen. But that doesn't mean we need to live in complete isolation. Social interaction is extremely important for good mental health. Isolation, on the other hand, can increase your anxiety and risk of depression, even if you don't have a history of mental illness.

Now’s your chance to get creative with communication. Get those virtual group chats going with your friends, family, and coworkers! Get on FaceTime, Google Hangouts, or your favorite video chat platform. Suggest casual video gatherings with your coworkers while you're teleworking to make sure you're not only able to collaborate on projects but to stay connected as a team. Ask your friends if they’d like to do a virtual movie night or find online multiplayer games you can all participate in. It’s possible to be together while remaining apart. 

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

4. Seek help from a mental health provider if you need it.

If you struggle with OCD or other forms of cleanliness compulsions, this is a particularly challenging time for you. Are you following good coronavirus sanitation practices, or are you experiencing increased OCD symptoms? It can be tricky to find the line!

Follow official guidelines about social distancing, handwashing, and sanitation. But also make sure you have a predetermined plan (based on your doctor's recommendations) for how often and in what situations you'll wash your hands. Then stick to it.

Don't decide on the fly whether it's time to wash your hands again—you'll be mentally struggling with temptation all day long. That struggle is stressful, and it makes you more vulnerable to giving in to intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.

Give urge surfing a try.

When you feel a strong urge to stray from your predetermined plan, try urge-surfing. Let's say you're having an intrusive thought that tells you to wash your hands even though you just did and you haven't been in contact with any risk since. Mindfully allow that urge to swell inside you. Then, without giving in to the compulsion, allow it to fade away on its own.

The key is to not fight the discomfort, deny it, or try to talk yourself out of it. Instead, let yourself feel the distress, then ride the wave. It's very difficult, but if you stick with this practice, it will get easier and easier to cope with compulsive urges. With practice, you may even be surprised at how quickly urges subside if you just allow them to follow their own course.

Struggling with an overabundance of (sometimes conflicting) information, cabin fever, social isolation, and mental health challenges all at once can feel incredibly overwhelming. Whatever you're feeling, remember that you're not alone in your anxiety. A conversation (virtual or otherwise) among friends, family, or colleagues will quickly reveal that we're all worried, and we're in this together. Stay strong!