Coronavirus Anxiety: A Psychologist’s Tips to Keep Panic and Fear from Taking Over

In the last several weeks, our world has been on edge as the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads.  Fear in the US ratcheted up over the weekend, with the declaration of a national emergency.    Coronavirus anxiety is palpable in nearly every environment, with millions of people on anxious and afraid.  The anxiety over this pandemic has gone from the edges of our minds to the very center. 

To be honest, I debated for nearly a week whether or not to make this video.  I have a strong reaction to videos that feel click-baity.  And when those videos are centered around mental health, I feel particularly protective.  Additionally, I’m not an expert on the Coronavirus.  But what I am an expert on is anxiety.  Helping people manage worry and fear is one of the things I do best.  So what better time to put my skills to use than now.

If you’re struggling to cope with Coronavirus anxiety, know that you’re not alone.  The pandemic and the impact it’s having on our society is both real and scary.  Given that, it might surprise you to know that I don’t want to eliminate your anxiety.  I don’t want to take your fear away.  That’s not the goal. 

The goal is to help your anxiety be proportionate to what’s going on.  The goal is to help you manage your worry and fear, keeping you healthy and sane, during an incredibly stressful time. So if you’re struggling with Coronavirus anxiety, here are my top five strategies to keep panic and fear from taking over.

1. Look at the data. When it comes to managing anxiety, one of the most helpful things you can do is put on your lab coat, embrace your inner scientist, and look at the data.  Your anxiety loves to distort things.  It blow things out of proportion or shrinks things in importance.  Your anxiety wants to take over, and it gets to do that the more distorted your thoughts.  So you have to train your brain to think like a scientist.  To take the hard facts, the data, and the truth, basing your conclusions on these, not the distorted and fear-driven thoughts that your anxiety grabs onto.

This virus is serious.  It’s shutting down schools, businesses, and travel.  It’s threatening the health and safety of people, especially those that are already vulnerable.  And it’s changing life as we know it for the next couple of months.  That data is undeniable.  But there is other data that is more encouraging.  The majority of people are not at immediate risk for becoming seriously ill from the virus.  The majority of people who contract the virus have mild symptoms and recover.  And there are things you can do to protect yourself.

Your anxiety loves to skew and distort the data.  It’s how it’s able to set up shop and stick around.  So challenge yourself to look at the data.  And in the case of COVID-19, we have real, hard data. This is a postive departure from other areas of your life, including relationships, work, or life plans, where data is trickier (but just as important) to identify and tease apart.

I will never tell you to think positive.  I don’t think that’s helpful.  (See why here.) Instead, I’ll encourage you to think realistically.  Look at the facts.  Look at the data.  And base your emotions off of that.  (For a super helpful tutorial on how to do this, check out this video.)

2. Turn off TV news. It’s imperative to stay informed about what’s going on across the world.  This is important at all times but especially during a time of crisis.  So please hear me loud and clear. I’m not advocating that you bury your head in the sand and ignore the news altogether.  But what I am advocating is that you rethink how you get your COVID-19 news. 

TV news is notorious for heightening emotion.  The flashy headlines, the startling images, the raised voices, the dramatic music, and the “up next” before each commercial break.  All of these things are designed to keep you watching.  And what keeps people glued to the TV better than anything else?  Fear

Unfortunately, this fear is like fuel for your anxiety.  The more news you watch, the more anxious you feel.  The more anxious you feel, the more news you watch.  Then suddenly, before you know it, you’ve been glued to the TV for hours, feeling more anxious, stressed, and freaked out than before.

The goal is to help your anxiety be proportionate to what’s going on.  The goal is to help you manage your worry and fear, keeping you healthy and sane, during this incredibly stressful time.

So turn off the TV, and read your news.  This will eliminate a lot of the anxiety inducing stimuli.  No flashy images, scary music, raised voices, or panicked anchors.  Get your facts, and stay informed.  But do so in a way that honors your mental health.  Will reading news articles still induce anxiety?  Probably.  But less so than an hour in front of the TV.  So find two to three credible news sources, and turn off the TV.

3. Do your part. Remember when you were in school, and you felt super anxious about a test you didn’t study for?  You sat down before class, filled with nerves, cursing yourself for hanging out with friends, instead of studying, the night before.  In that moment, you might have thought you had an anxiety problem.  But I’d disagree.  Your test anxiety wasn’t an anxiety problem; it was a preparation problem.  You felt anxious because you didn’t do your part in preparing!

One of the things that contributes to Coronavirus anxiety is not having control.  And while it’s true, there’s a lot outside of your control, you also have more say than you might think!  There are practical, evidence-based things that you can do to reduce your risk of contracting the virus. As of now, the CDC recommends taking typical flu-season precautions.  Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth. Cover your cough. Stay home when sick. Clean household objects and surfaces. And wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.  As our understanding of the virus increases, so will recommendations about how you can protect yourself and others.  So follow up to date recommendations.

Before a big test, it’s unlikely you’ll get rid of all your anxiety.  But you can do your part in appropriately preparing, giving you a greater sense confidence and subsequently reducing your anxiety.  The same is true with Coronavirus anxiety.  Do your part to prepare, and take the recommended precautions.  It won’t eliminate your anxiety, but it will help to reduce it.

4. Continue to live your life and lean on your favorite stress management techniques, but with adjustments. You don’t need to stop living your life during this pandemic.  But you do need to live it differently.  The things that brought you joy before Coronavirus are still important to do.  But you might have to do them differently.  The things that helped you manage your anxiety before the pandemic are still important to do.  But you might need to do them differently.  And the things that helped you relieve stress are critical to continue, but you might need to do them differently.

Think of a stressful time in your life within the last year.  How did you cope?  What things helped you feel better?  What kinds of activities kept your stress and anxiety at bay?  Name those things.  Jot down a list.  See? You already have anxiety management tools that work.  Now find a way to recreate those in these current times and with these current restrictions.

Do your part to prepare, and take the recommended precautions.  It won’t eliminate your anxiety, but it will help to reduce it.

If spending them with friends helps you reduce stress, then continue to spend time with friends.  But do so virtually.  FaceTime, host a game night over Skype, or revisit your middle school days and actually talk on the phone.  If trying new restaurants is something you love, awesome.  You’ve already got a clue about how you can reduce your stress during this time.  But make some adjustments, and try out new recipes at home.  Blast some music, light some candles, and forgo eating in front of the TV.  Get your kids in on the action, wear aprons, and make silly chef hats to add to the effect.  I know it’s not the same.  Nothing’s going to feel the same right now.  But that doesn’t mean you have to abandon all your favorite activities and stress busters.  Do what you know works for you, but find a way to do it differently. 

5. Acknowledge you don’t have full control. This last point is potentially one of the most helpful things you can do in times of anxiety and stress.  But it’s also one of the most difficult.  And at first pass, this idea is likely going to increase your anxiety.  But it’s critically important, so hear me out.

One of the scariest parts of being a human is not having full control.  We’re often taught from an early age that we have control over our lives.  That we get to decide what we do, what happens to us, and how it happens.  But that’s not true.  We have some control and some say.  But we don’t have the full say.  And we humans don’t do well with not having control.

So in an attempt to cope, we try to gain control.  We try to grab what’s not there.  We trick ourselves into thinking that we alone can dictate the outcome.  This is the role of worry.  It’s an illusion of control. It tricks your brain into thinking you’ve got the full say and that you can worry your way out of a situation.  But the scary and real truth is that you don’t and you can’t.  As a human, some things are outside of your control.

You don’t need to stop living your life during this pandemic.  But you do need to live it differently. 

Every day, when you get in a car, you’re living this reality of not having full control.  You can be the best driver, wear your seatbelt, and have automatic sensors on your car.  But there’s nothing you can do to control other drivers, road conditions, or freak accidents.  These things are simply outside of your control.  And while it’s scary to acknowledge this, it’s important.  Because it’s the truth.  And we humans are healthiest when we can see things as they are.  Trying to gain, grab, or worry your way into full control won’t work.  In fact, it will only bring on additional anxiety and panic, as you try to do the impossible.

So as we talk about Coronavirus anxiety, acknowledge that you don’t have full control.  Do your part, and focus on what you can control. Then do your best to tolerate the uncertainty that remains.  Redirect your worry.  Refocus your attention.  Use your coping statements. And get more comfortable with the uncertainty of life.  Because as much as we hate to acknowledge not having control, it’s so much healthier than trying to gain or force control when it simply isn’t possible.

If your Coronavirus anxiety is high right now, you’re not alone. This is a scary time, and the impact of the Coronavirus will be felt for years to come. But remember, when it comes to anxiety, you have a choice in how you respond. You have a say in how you cope. And you have the ability to train your brain to see things differently, responding with care and compassion.

PS: If you’re in the market for some additional coping skills and ways to manage anxiety, I’m including a few of my favorites below.
The Single Word that Can Reduce Your Anxiety
“What If” Thinking: How to Stop Your Anxiety from Taking Over
How to Stop a Panic Attack: The Surprising Thing You Need to Know

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