How to Cope With Anxiety Related to the Corona Pandemic
Coping strategies that can help you manage pandemic-related anxieties.
Posted Sep 29, 2020
We are all struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us are suffering with anxiety in particular and yet we often don’t recognize when we are feeling overly anxious. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion that is characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes.”
This post offers information and coping strategies for anyone struggling with coronavirus-based anxiety. In a follow-up post, I will focus on helping those with a history of trauma, especially childhood neglect and abuse, and those who suffer from more severe forms of anxiety.
The first step to learning how to cope with anxiety is to recognize when we are suffering from it. Some signs of anxiety include:
- Obsessive thoughts
- Excessive worry
- Difficulty concentrating, making decisions
- Sleep disturbances
- Over thinking
- Irrational fears
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle tension
- Profuse sweating
- Difficulty breathing
- Fear of losing control
- Gastrointestinal problems
The second step to coping with anxiety is to recognize that it is a normal and valid response to a crisis such as the corona pandemic. Symptoms of stress, like elevated heart rate and racing thoughts, are the body’s way of signaling to your brain that you’re in danger. This survival mechanism, known as “fight or flight” continues to activate during less immediate or tangible threats, such as uncertainty about the future. If you think about anxiety as a physiologically protective measure, it can be less scary and can become more manageable.
Prescriptions for Coronavirus-Based Anxiety
Overcoming feelings of anxiety takes conscious effort. While it is normal to feel anxious, learning coping strategies for dealing with anxiety can help prevent anxiety from becoming uncontrollable and resulting in a medical issue. There are many ways to effectively manage anxiety. Here are but a few.
Acknowledge your suffering. It is vitally important that you begin to acknowledge how much you, just as most of us, are suffering due to the stress of the COVID pandemic. You are no doubt feeling fear on a daily basis, whether it is fear of contracting the virus, fear of a loved one contracting it, or fear of the economic fallout due to being locked down. If you have lost your job you are no doubt afraid you will not be able to continue to feed and house your family, if you are self-employed you are likely afraid you will not be able to continue to pay your employees or worse yet, that you will need to close your business. Add to these fears the stress associated with being with your family 24/7 and concerns about how your children will continue their education and you can see that most of us are dealing with far too much stress. Recognize that all this fear and stress is causing you to suffer. It is probably affecting both your emotional and physical health (refer to list above).
Begin to have compassion for your suffering. Instead of judging yourself because you are feeling anxious or for behaviors that may result from your heightened emotional state (such as overeating), practice self-compassion.
Write a list of all the things you are currently worried about. Now say or write down something that expresses compassion toward yourself for each item on your list. Do this as if someone outside yourself is saying the words. For example, “I’m so sorry you are having to worry about losing your home. You’ve worked hard for so long and it would be a tragedy if you can’t find a way to pay your mortgage.” If you can’t think of something to say to yourself, think of what a supportive friend or family member might say if you told them about how your partner abused you.
Be kind to yourself. Put your arms around your shoulders or across your stomach, as if someone is hugging you. Let yourself feel comforted. Get a cup of hot tea and sit quietly, letting it all sink in—all the pain, all the humiliation. Let your tears flow if you feel sad.
Research has shown that gratitude can increase feelings of security and connectedness. It helps us notice the good that can come from outside of ourselves. Gratitude rewires the brain so we can become more likely to focus on the positives in the world than the negatives. It’s impossible to feel grateful and negative at the same time. More good feelings means less room for the anxious, toxic ones. Gratitude also has the capacity to increase important neurochemicals. When thinking shifts from negative to positive, there is a surging of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Whenever you are feeling especially anxious, think of at least five things to be grateful for.
Practice Belly Breathing
Deep breathing is one of the easiest and most effective ways of dealing with stress and anxiety. When done correctly, deep breathing helps to regulate your breathing, which in turn reduces your heart rate. Reduced heart rate can help calm your anxiety.
- Get into a comfortable position, preferably lying down.
- Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.
- Take a deep breathe in through your nose, and let your belly push your hand away.
- Breathe out through pursed lips as if you are whistling.
- Do this three to 10 times.
Grounding exercises can help anyone suffering from anxiety. This is because a lot of our fears are about going into our heads and obsessing and ruminating and catastrophizing. When that happens, the best way to counter a tendency to spiral out of control is to “get out of our heads and back into our bodies.” Grounding techniques pull our attention back to the present moment and that can make us feel more secure. Here are three ways to ground yourself:
- While seated, take your shoes off and plant your feet firmly on the floor. Now breathe deeply while you imagine that you’re putting down roots. Actually imagine roots coming out of the soles of your feet and going down into the earth.
- Pick a color and while breathing deeply, look around the room and find all the objects that are that color. This focuses you on your immediate physical reality and distracts you from following a train of “what-ifs” about the future.
- Learn to self-sooth by hugging yourself, rocking back and forth slowly, or stroking your arm like you would pet a cat or dog. If you actually have a cat or dog petting them has a similar effect.
Exercise releases endorphins, also referred to as the “happy hormones” of the body and can also reduce the risk of stress-related illnesses like high blood pressure and heart disease.
Please refer to my Psychology Today posts, Coping With the Coronavirus With Mindfulness and Compassion (March 17, 2020), Coping Styles in the Time of Crisis (March 23, 2020) and The Top Research Based Strategies for Coping With PTSD (April 2, 2020) for more information and suggestions on how to manage your anxiety.
In a follow-up post, I will offer strategies and information specifically for those who have a history of trauma or who have an anxiety-related diagnosis.