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Five Strategies to Cope with Anxiety about COVID-19

As I put pen to paper this particular Friday the 13th (3.13.20), I am standing with you on shifting sand.  We are currently existing within a global milieu of uncertainty and unpredictability as COVID-19 is spreading.  Do you know what else spreads?  Fear and panic.  There is no hand sanitizer to get rid of affective contagion.     

Many people are asking, “How can I cope with anxiety about coronoavirus?”  The illness is impacting far more than respiratory systems.  Markets.  Jobs.  Schools.  Schedules.  Mobility.  The deleterious impact of the psychological stress of the pandemic is real, too. 

Why do I feel this way?

Anxiety is a body’s natural response to perceived threat. In order to survive, we rely on our body and brain to activate and mobilize in certain ways if we are in danger.  While adaptive, anxiety can be a deplorable experience, psychologically and physically.   

Some people who are anxious may experience:

  • racing thoughts that you cannot get out of your head or pull your attention away from
  • replaying a worst-case scenario
  • trouble giving anything but a feared scenario your full attention
  • an overwhelming sense that something horrific is waiting for you on the horizon
  • difficulty sleeping
  • irritability

Sometimes anxiety is experienced very physically.  The physiological manifestations of anxiety and panic can include experiences such as:

  • racing heart beat
  • hyperventilation,
  • sweating
  • trembling
  • dizziness
  • being on the brink of fainting
  • chest pain
  • excessive sweating or chills
  • a choking sensation
  • nausea

Physical symptoms may crescendo rapidly and together in a short period of time (5-10 minutes).  This is panic.  Some of these somatic symptoms may also nag in the background at a lower volume and slowly drain your energy throughout the day.

Strategies to Cope with Anxiety about Coronavirus

Many more questions than answers currently exist, but there are steps that you can take to manage your feelings about the current reality:

  1. Separate.  Differentiate between what is known and what is not known.  This is not the time to pull out your predictive paintbrush and start drawing a scary storm on parts of the canvas that are still blank.  It will not serve you.  It will not change the outcome.  In the gallery of human history, this portrait in this room will not have your name attached to it. 
  2. Act.  Identify what is within your control and exercise agency in these areas.  This will help to mitigate the helplessness that can ensue in times of crisis.  Wash your hands.  Make thoughtful choices about where you will go and when.  
  3. Limit.  Identify triggers of your stress.  What is making your fear thermometer soar over 100 degrees?  News? Google?  Looking at your investment portfolio? Conversations with certain people? Set very specific parameters around these things.  You need behavior guardrails.  Decide in advance how much time you will spend in front of a screen listening to or watching a broadcast.  Preplan a specific number of articles that you will read and cut yourself off when you’re done.  Clickbait is not the friend of your feelings right now.  Set a new password on your investment account without updating your automatic login.  Pre-plan exit strategies in conversations with individuals who fan the flame of your anxious fire.  These exit ramps can involve communication and physically leaving a problematic change.
  4. Ask. Who is the author?  You need to carefully think through the origins of your information. It is prudent to think about whether a source may be skewed or deriving secondary gain from your consumption of continual content.   
  5. Breathe.  You can take a step to kick anxiety out of the driver’s seat and help you reclaim your grasp on the wheel by using the power of your breathing. Close your eyes. Picture a balloon in your belly. Breathe in through your nose to the count of four and visualize filling the balloon with air.  Hold you breath for four.  Exhale through your mouth (think: blowing bubbles through a straw)  for the count of four, exhaling your belly balloon.  Hold you breath for another count of four.  Start again from the beginning.  Try to fill and empty the balloon forty times.  Your stomach should be moving.  Your shoulders should not. 

Anxiety and stress can be cognitively hellacious and physically depleting.  It will behoove you to get serious about shoring up your internal and external self right now. It is not time to increase susceptibility to potential harm by stripping your brain and body of much-needed reserves.  Bolster resilience by taking steps you can to be the master of your mind and protector of your psyche. 


March 14, 2020

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