Anxiety is often triggered by an event or situation that is inherently stressful or has uncertainty attached to it. One of the greatest sources of anxiety and worry is the unknown. As human beings, we don’t like uncertainty, and we would rather fill in the blanks than sit with and accept a lack of answers or predictable outcomes. And with the coronavirus, there are lots of uncertainties coupled with the threat and fear of exposure, getting sick, or inadvertently infecting someone else.
Not having clear answers or predictable outcomes can be experienced as threatening, and our bodies react to threat. Physiologically, we go into a fight-or-flight response, which can include:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Quick and shallow breathing
- Excessive sweating
- Dizziness or trembling
We may become more sensitive to our surroundings and experience increased irritability, sleep disturbance, and loss of concentration. Our thoughts can become obsessive, keeping us stuck in “What if’s?” or “worst-case scenarios.” For kids and adults who already have a predilection towards feeling anxious or a diagnosed anxiety disorder, their symptoms can intensify.
Negative Coping Strategies
Ironically, we are all being encouraged to do social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus, and although that certainly makes sense from a medical standpoint, and I’m not contradicting it—it’s important to point out that it’s counter-productive in terms of a psychological and emotional response. When we are threatened, we are hard-wired to reach out and do social engagement, not social distancing. So isolating, although necessary, will not help to reduce anxious feelings.
In addition, when people are scared, they may gravitate towards behaviors designed to self-medicate or numb, such as:
- Drug use
- Increased alcohol or tobacco use
- Increased vaping
- Excessive eating
- An increase in video gaming and internet surfing
- Online shopping or gambling
More people may turn to “medical marijuana,” something that, in the long run, will actually increase their anxiety.
The other strategy that people tend to turn to in an attempt to decrease their sense of uncertainty is to oversaturate with information from news programs, the internet, their phones, the newspaper, social media. This can have a paradoxical effect, actually creating more anxiety and worry as we attempt to sort through contradictory information, misinformation, or information with an agenda.
Navigating anxiety in effective ways
One of the most important interventions is not to fight the feeling of anxiety or bring guilt or shame to it by telling ourselves that we “shouldn’t be feeling this way.” When we can bring compassion and acceptance—“This is how I’m feeling right now, and it will pass—it’s time-limited,” or “There are things I can do to soothe myself while I’m going through it,” or “It makes sense that I’m anxious”— that dramatically de-escalates the flight-or-fight response.
Rather than creating a situation of information or stimulation overload, we actually need to limit our exposure to news stories and social media to maintain a sense of balance in our lives.
We need to find safe ways to maintain a sense of connectedness to others. This is a good time to revive the almost dead art of talking on the phone rather than texting or e-mailing. Since a connection is achieved through eye gaze, Skyping and using Facetime are great ways to increase social engagement.
For couples now working from home, hang out in the same room, and take breaks to connect with each other. Increase social engagement by playing board games or card games, cooking a meal together, or doing a house project together. For someone who is living alone and has to do social distancing, listening to an audiobook can both calm and reduce worrisome thoughts and evoke a sense of connection to a soothing voice.
We can reduce obsessive thinking by focusing on other tasks that require attention and executive functioning like:
- Crossword puzzles
- Coloring mandalas or adult coloring books
We can calm our bodies through:
- Soothing music
- Guided imagery and mindfulness meditation
- Any safe visualization of “floating with” anxious feelings rather than fighting against them can help.
Taking care of our bodies is in our control and can help boost immunity—so get enough sleep and eat well. Breathing activates a sense of safe, calm, and connected when we fully exhale. Exercise helps discharge stress and releases endorphins. Even if you have to do social distancing, take a walk in your neighborhood, or do an exercise tape in your home. For those who are spiritually connected, accessing faith, religious ritual, or the notion of a Higher Power can strengthen a sense of being grounded and help to maintain hope and trust in difficult times.
In the face of uncertainty, practicing healthy self-soothing and compassion, maintaining routines when possible, safely connecting to others and to nature, and reducing information overload will enable all of us to navigate these challenging times in calmer, clear-headed, and optimistic ways.