Staying Calm During COVID-19
by Amy Vigliotti, Ph.D
How to rebalance your life in an unbalanced time.
Originally published on Psychology Today
Co-authored by Khadega Wzaky
In uncertain times, you can find yourself on edge, tense and nervous about the future. However, we all have internal and social resources to get through this challenging time. You are far more resilient than you give yourself credit for. Moreover, the human spirit can be incredibly kind and generous, so even with social distancing we can feel the support from one another!
With increasing concern about the coronavirus, we have seen and will continue to see a variety of responses. While everyone experiences anxiety a little differently, the common thread is the feeling of threat to ourselves and/or the ones we love, coupled with a general feeling of uncertainty about what is to come. Some individuals are being heavily impacted by the physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, trouble sleeping, and changes in appetite. Others may find cognitive symptoms to be a greater stressor resulting in difficulties recalling memories, problems with concentration, inability to control negative thoughts, ruminating on the same thoughts, and having trouble seeing any positives. These anxiety symptoms are the body and mind’s natural response to rapid adaptations in your familial, work, financial and emotional environments. It is likely that they may get better with time as you adjust to your “new normal” but you can immediately use the strategies below to help manage anxiety and other difficult feelings.
1. Separate out worries into productive and unproductive actions. Worries can be turned into productive preparations and cautionary behaviors like taking vitamins, stocking up on essentials and food, refilling medications and so on. It is equally important to prepare mentally. You can stock up on your favorite reading materials and calming scents like lavender; make time to socialize through phone, video calls, online gaming; and in your downtime engage in a hobby or interest you enjoy. When you find yourself worrying about something you have no control over and can’t convert into a positive preparation, it is helpful to “shelve” that thought, or let it go completely.
2. Make a visual list of coping skills and have it readily accessible. In times like these, you might find your typical ways of coping don’t cut it, and you need even more tools and strategies to turn to. You may also find your mind is overwhelmed with information and new adjustments, so you forget the things that used to come more naturally to you. First, make a list of the things you do already and have done to manage stress and remain calm. Here are some ideas to get you started: therapy, talking to a friend, exercise, prayer, reading, medication, yoga, creative activities, positive self-talk, cooking, gardening, journaling, deep breathing, listening to music, household projects, spring cleaning, meditation, puzzles/games, playing with your pets and kids, and doing something nice for someone else.
3. Challenge negative thoughts. Chronic stress is often the result of negative thought patterns. Individuals who focus on and replay negative thoughts find the experience to be unpleasant, counterproductive, and in some cases resulting in depression. Challenging irrational, negative thoughts can allow you to change them by learning how to examine the validity of the negative thoughts and learn how to interpret situations using a different perspective.
4. Limit your exposure to anxiety-producing news and information. It is important to stay up to date with new information but it is just as important to make a deliberate choice to read or watch the news. Refreshing your social media feeds throughout the day, or keeping the news on in the background, is overwhelming your senses and your ability to pay attention to other needs for yourself and your family. Trust that you can get what you need in a few structured and limited times when you check your news sources. It is especially important to limit/monitor the way your children are receiving news about the virus. Stick to reliable sources and perhaps block people temporarily on social media if their reactions are increasing your negativity or anxiety.
5. Practice a daily mindful activity. The bulk of the fear attached to anxiety comes from the anticipation of a future threat. Many people will catastrophize what is coming and have trouble separating assumptions from facts. Practicing a daily mindful activity places a focus on the now and not the future. This is done by separating feelings from judgments and focusing on things that are true and are occurring now, not what might happen. Pick one thing you do daily and let your senses attend to that one thing – like brushing your teeth or making your morning coffee. When your mind wanders off, bring it back gently to your activity. A daily meditation practice can also help you be more mindful. Tara Brach and Christopher Germer have wonderful free meditations available online. There are also many apps to help you start or build upon an existing practice (Headspace, Insight Timer, Buddhify, Calm). Additionally, you can hear my guided meditations for free on Spotify and Google Play (Unwind: Guided Relaxation, by Amy Vigliotti)
6. Talk about it, write about it, let it out. There is a common misconception that talking about anxiety makes it worse because it encourages people to think about what makes them anxious. The reality, however, is that people who experience anxiety experience it whether they talk about it or not. Research has found that expressing anxious thoughts can help individuals feel as if they are getting the negative thoughts “out of their system”, and/or diminish the intensity of their feelings. You can express your thoughts to trusted friends/family, keep a journal, or write them on notes to then be discarded later.
7. Pay attention to positive events. Picture yourself walking outside on a day where there is a mix of clouds and blue sky. In times of unusual stress, we all have a habit of focusing on the negative – the “clouds” – and missing the blue sky. If we ignore the blue sky, we make things even harder on ourselves. You want to balance your consumption of “negative” news by reading and attending to positive events. There are always positive things to focus on even in times of great duress. We see fitness instructors giving online free workouts; neighbors lending a hand to elderly individuals; healthcare workers prioritizing the care of others in a selfless manner. And there are little things we can be grateful for as well: a hot shower, our morning coffee, a smile or text from a friend. If you want to take it a step further, you can be the positive change in your community. Doing something nice for someone else makes us feel good too.
Feeling Anxiety About Coronavirus? A Psychologist Offers Tips to Stay Clearheaded. (2020, March 15). Retrieved from https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2020/03/416836/feeling-anxiety-about-coronavirus-psychologist-offers-tips-stay-clearheaded
Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). Writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/writing-about-emotions-may-ease-stress-and-trauma
Instant CBT: The Simplest Way to Challenge Negative Thoughts. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/i-hear-you/201810/instant-cbt-the-simplest-way-challenge-negative-thoughts