A Simple Strategy to Overcome Pandemic Anxiety
How to remain calm despite COVID-19 concerns.
Posted Aug 15, 2020
COVID-19 has not only taken a physical toll in terms of infection, it has had a major psychological impact as well. Whether people are worried about becoming infected, have lost loved ones, or are simply struggling to cope with isolation, depression, or the disruption of social and financial support, the virus has had severe mental health effects.
Thankfully, there is a straightforward solution: a relatively simple way to reframe and refocus that may cure the non-physical symptoms of this disease. It involves reframing fear and refocusing attention.
Giovambattista Presti et al. (2020) examined the dynamics of fear during COVID-19.[i] They began by recognizing that the viral outbreak caused a parallel outbreak of fear and worry. They note that people react to fear symbolically, arbitrarily relating it to other events and objects through what they describe as “derived verbal relations,” resulting in language changing our experience of events and accordingly, how we relate either functionally or dysfunctionally to our world.
They sought to craft a model of intervention designed to promote psychological flexibility as well as more functional value-based actions, which can be key to adapting to (hopefully temporary) new ways of living during pandemic times and afterward.
Pandemic Pressure and Psychopathology
Presti et al. note that during a pandemic, health care providers, patients, and the public in general experience what they term “overwhelming psychological pressure.” Over and above the loss attributed to the virus itself is the social and behavioral adjustments people have to make in an attempt to slow the spread. In many areas, this has included measures such as extended lockdowns.
Research reveals that prolonged quarantines can have a negative psychological impact, potentially leading to anger, confusion, and even post-traumatic stress symptoms. The most relevant stressors identified after prolonged isolation, among both the sick and the healthy, were fear of infection, inadequate information, boredom, financial loss, inadequate supplies, and stigma.
Attention as an Antidote to Anxiety: The Power of Psychological Flexibility
But there is hope—in a form which is, practically speaking, relatively simple in the grand scheme of potential responses. Presti et al. note that flexible responding can be an effective antidote to anxiety-induced rigidity. They describe psychological flexibility as a set of skills, both inter- and intra-personally, that allow us to “recognize and adapt to various situational demands; shift mindsets or behavioral repertoires when these strategies compromise personal or social functioning; maintain balance among important life domains; and be aware, open, and committed to behaviors that are congruent with deeply held values.”
With respect to COVID-19, Presti et al. note that psychological flexibility skills can counteract the narrowing effects of pandemic fueled fear and anxiety. They remind us that we are constantly surrounded by a variety of stimuli upon which we can focus—in order to lessen our experience of fear and anxiety. They give a variety of simple, easy to understand examples, including the feeling of fresh air on our skin, the sound of a friend’s voice on the phone, the sounds in our own home, increased heartbeat in response to physical activity, and even the way the second bite of dessert tastes compared with the first. They explain that by viewing our thoughts as just that, thoughts, and experiencing bodily sensations, we may be able to prevent anxiety from escalating, which over time can cause more significant mental problems.
Presti et al. note this manner of thinking also gives people more of a choice as to how to spend their time and energy—such as through caring for themselves and family, helping others, or working. They note that other research corroborates their conclusions, showing that deliberately cultivating such skills can create post-traumatic growth in the wake of trauma, instead of PTSD.
Positive Reframing for the Future
Presti et al. note that although pandemic-fueled anxiety will still catch our attention, psychological flexibility skills can help redirect us to the things that give us meaning. They point out that although quarantines and other social restrictions force everyone to adjust our manner of living, psychological flexibility skills may help us see opportunities for creative, novel, or even simpler ways of living a full, thriving life in the midst of the storm.
[i] Presti, Giovambattista, Louise Mchugh, Andrew Gloster, Maria Karekla, and Steven C. Hayes. 2020. “The Dynamics of Fear at the Time of COVID-19: A Contextual Behavioral Science Perspective.” Clinical Neuropsychiatry: Journal of Treatment Evaluation 17 (2): 65–71. http://search.ebscohost.com.libproxy.sdsu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2020-27302-005&site=ehost-live&scope=site.