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Respond Instead of React: Managing COVID-19 Anxiety

5 ways to keep anxiety from turning into panic.

As we face the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, it’s normal to feel anxious or even panicky. However, if we allow anxious thoughts and feelings to start dictating our everyday actions, we can put ourselves into a state of ongoing panic*, where we:

  • Lose the ability to use our rational decision-making skills, because fight-or-flight instincts take over.
  • Narrow our focus to only the situation causing the panic, causing us to miss bigger picture perspectives that could be useful in managing the problem.
  • Increase our level of anxiety, because if we react as if our lives are in peril in this moment, we’ll receive an influx of stress chemicals to match that life-threatening situation.
© Can Stock Photo / Maridav
Source: © Can Stock Photo / Maridav

The COVID-19 pandemic is activating the most primal of our survival instincts, which can create anxiety and even panic at times, even for those of us who treat anxiety disorders for a living! However, borrowing from some cognitive-behavioral therapy tools for anxiety, here are five ways we can learn to turn our reactions into responses, helping us and our loved ones cope well in this time of crisis.

Change your attitude about anxiety and stress

Recognize that you’re anxious because your body is trying to prepare you to deal with this crisis situation, and preparation is a good thing because it can make you more alert and ready to take appropriate action. If you tell yourself that anxiety is bad, then your brain is going to dump more stress chemicals into your system to help you deal with this “bad” anxiety. You’ll then end up more anxious, the opposite of what you wanted! Instead, tell yourself that feeling anxious right now is normal, because it is, and that you can handle these feelings, because you can. Watch Kelly McGonigal’s brilliant TED Talk, "How to make stress your friend," for more about the paradoxical power of embracing stress and anxiety.

Slow down your actions

Rushing around just tells your brain that there’s some reason you need to be moving so quickly, e.g. there’s a saber-tooth tiger somewhere and you’re trying desperately to get away from it although you have no idea where it’s hiding! Try physically slowing down: Walk more slowly, type more slowly (I’m slowing my fingers down right now), talk more slowly, etc. You’ll be surprised how slowing down your body can help you settle into the present instead of living in the scary world of “what ifs?” Speaking of which…

Focus on the present

Currently, I’m slowly typing this blog post. I can feel my fingers on the keys and hear the ambient hum from lights and appliances in the background. There is nothing wrong in my present moment while I’m sitting at my desk writing, i.e. there's not a crisis in front of me needing my urgent attention. Yes, there’s a world crisis happening, but I’m going to choose the times to work on managing my response to that issue and that’s not in this moment. Right now, I’m choosing to write and that’s my focus.

Make no mistake that I sometimes hear the voice of my anxiety screaming in the background while I’m writing—it likes to plead with me to drop everything and go to the grocery store because it heard there’s still a shortage of toilet paper. This is my anxiety talking, not my OCD, but I’m going to treat these anxious thoughts like I’ve learned to treat my obsessive thoughts: I hear them, I put my shoulders back and ignore them, refocusing on the task at hand—writing. What’s real for me is not the noise in my head, but the task I’ve chosen to give my attention to in this moment.

If being in the present moment sounds challenging, meditation is a great way to cultivate this skill. And there’s no time like the present to start, especially since so many of your regular activities are probably cancelled. For more about the benefits of meditation during the COVID-19 pandemic, see Jon Hershfield’s insightful blog post, “So Apparently This is Happening: Mindfulness and COVID-19.” For a free app to help you get started with meditation, try Insight Timer.

Watch for confirmation bias in news intake

When you’re anxious, you’re more likely to compulsively search the news for information that will help you feel more in control. Of course, that control is an illusion, but that doesn’t stop us from browsing! Further, typically what we’re searching for is data that will support our current conclusion about how this pandemic is going to unfold. If you look for data that this situation is headed in a catastrophic direction, you’ll find it. If you look for data that we will get all this under control, you’ll find it. This is confirmation bias in action.

A healthier way to manage news intake is to find a few sources you trust and check their coverage at a frequency that works for you while also trying to take in the whole story, not just details that confirm a particular viewpoint. For instance, at the beginning of the pandemic I checked one online national newspaper in the morning and evening, my state’s department of public health website each evening, and an international newspaper a few times a week. But after a few weeks I decided to modify my news plan because I felt I was checking too much. So now I check a national newspaper a maximum of a few times a week, and sometimes I'll go a week without checking the news at all. I'll continue to make modifications as the crisis continues. As long as my plan is serving me well, meaning that it's allowing me to stay up-to-date on the pandemic without focusing too much on any one particular part of the situation and unnecessarily revving up my anxiety, I'll stick with it.

If you look for data to confirm your anxious thoughts, you’ll find it and make yourself more anxious without a comparable increase in actionable, useful information.

Consider borrowing my Rule #1

I do plan to go to the grocery store after I finish working later today, as there are some additional items I need, including toilet paper. If the store is out of toilet paper, I might go to another store, or buy some tissues or disposable baby wipes or some other “this will do in a pinch” product if I absolutely need to. The point is, I have a plan, I’ll follow the plan, and if I run into obstacles along the way, I’ll figure it out.

When we hit an obstacle and react instead of respond, saying to ourselves some variation of, “This is terrible! I can’t figure this out, and I can’t handle it!” our anxiety can turn into panic and overwhelm our ability to function.

To keep myself from panicking, I'm regularly using Rule #1 from my book, Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life:

  • I can’t judge this as good or bad.
  • I’m going to allow for bigger plans than my own to unfold.
  • Life is a classroom and I’m here to learn.

When something doesn't go the way you’d like, such as when you can't find toilet paper, and you judge it as “bad,” you put your fight-or-flight instincts in charge, causing all the issues I previously described. But not being able to get toilet paper is not being able to get toilet paper. It’s not good or bad, it just is.

Fortunately, we humans are resilient, creative creatures, and our competitive advantage in the world is that we can think and solve problems, including what to do without traditional toilet paper. If I can’t find toilet paper, I’ll figure it out, remembering that I’m going to allow bigger plans than my own unfold and that life has turned into more of a classroom than usual lately, and I’m going to learn what I can.

We’ll do better in crisis situations if we can keep our wits about us. In this COVID-19 pandemic, I’m learning that the more I can turn my reactions into responses, the more effectively I’ll be able to cope with these uncertain times.

If you have OCD, an anxiety disorder, or an overwhelming amount of anxiety, check out "Managing OCD about Coronavirus," that I co-wrote with Kimberley Quinlan, LMFT, and Reid Wilson, Ph.D.

*When I refer to panic in this blog, I’m referring to a state of general panic that anyone might face, not a panic attack that someone with panic disorder would experience.

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