Graphic via Tania Lil for Courier Coronavirus anxiety
Graphic via Tania Lil for Courier

It may feel all too easy to succumb to fear and anxiety amidst all this uncertainty. Take some time to address your mental well-being with these tips. 

A new poll out this week finds a majority of Americans are at least somewhat worried that they or someone they love will be infected by the novel coronavirus. And rightfully so: Last week, the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, and as of early Thursday afternoon, more than 10,700 Americans had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Compounding the growing number of cases is a new understanding of just who is affected by the virus. According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, elderly people are not the only ones who have endured serious complications from the disease. Nearly 40% of the 508 coronavirus-related hospitalizations were patients between the ages of 20 and 54.

Between a constant flow of breaking news updates related to the economic fallout of the outbreak and recommendations from health officials to stay away from one another as much as possible, it may feel all too easy to succumb to fear and anxiety. That’s why it’s so important to be mindful of our mental well-being during these uncertain times. 

Some anxiety and stress are OK, said Melody Li, a therapist in Texas who started an initiative to connect people with therapists that are offering reduced-fee teletherapy—after all, we are living in a pandemic. “This low-level of anxiety helps us feel engaged, prepared, and be quick to respond, which is important.”

However, if you find yourself constantly scrolling through news or social media, over-cleaning or overwashing your hands, or gripped by a sense of panic or restlessness that you can’t turn off, you may be experiencing unhealthy anxiety. Alternatively, that unhealthy anxiety might show up as feeling hopeless, unmotivated, drained, or like there’s nothing you can do. Li explained that anxiety looks different for different people. 

Teresa Mok, an Illinois-based licensed clinical psychologist, said if you already struggle with anxiety, you may feel like it is amplified right now. That can lead to catastrophizing, or believing something is far worse than it really is, which can certainly be easy to do in a pandemic. 

“Overall, catastrophizing often doesn’t help regardless,” Mok said. “Sometimes the anxiety feels like it’s ramping up because it’s echoing in their head and magnifying in some ways.”

That’s why, she added, it’s so important to find ways to get out of your thoughts. 

Here are a few tips: 

Talk to people.

Just putting your feelings out there with people you trust can help alleviate your symptoms, Li said. “Feeling a sense of togetherness with our community is really important right now. This, ‘OK, I’m not feeling this alone, and together we can pool our resources, we can encourage one another,’—that can often help with feelings of anxiety.”

Take breaks from social media.

While we’re all social distancing, it may seem intuitive to stay connected to friends via social media. The problem with that, Li said, is that you can actually get bombarded with mixed information instead of maintaining a true connection.

Instead, she said, “actually pick up the phone, get on Facetime, get on Zoom, Skype, whatever it is and have one-on-one conversations with people that you trust. There’s something therapeutic about being able to see someone’s face and reaction that can be soothing. [Having] an actual listening ear that is engaged can be very helpful at this time.”

Make sure the information you’re consuming is accurate.

This will not only keep you grounded, but also give you a broader perspective about what’s happening in the world. “Anxiety tends to narrow people’s focus sometimes in ways that aren’t really helpful,” Mok said. For example, Mok explained that while you may see photos on social media of empty store shelves because people are stocking up on toilet paper, that doesn’t necessarily mean hoarding toilet paper should be a priority, at least from a public health perspective. 

“Sometimes the vigilance isn’t really vigilant,” Mok said. Instead, “it’s magnifying worry.” 

Focus on what’s happening in your community.

Instead of spending a lot of time looking at the infection rates (which can be overwhelming as testing continues to ramp up) and response efforts on the national level, focus instead on what’s happening in your state or even your local community. The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in your local area can feel less intimidating than the data for the entire country or worldwide. Additionally, the ways your state and local governments are treating the outbreak may inspire more confidence than what may be happening on the federal level. 

“Things are happening quickly, that can feel true,” Mok said, but you don’t have to be monitoring every update.

Take care of your physical well-being.

Don’t overlook the power of a good night’s rest. Research shows that sleep deprivation may be a risk factor for anxiety disorders. Eating healthy, staying active, and getting outside have also been shown to improve one’s mood.

Don’t overlook the good news. 

Amidst all of the scary updates, there is some good news on the horizon, and it’s important to embrace it. A team of researchers in Washington just launched the first human trial for a coronavirus vaccine this week. Japanese media reported Wednesday that a drug being developed in the country to treat new strains of the flu appears to also improve lung conditions in coronavirus patients. Plus, for the first time since the outbreak there began, Chinese officials said Thursday there were no new local cases of COVID-19. 

Ultimately, Li said, we need to normalize what’s happening and remember that “we are in this together.”