Mind and Body

How to deal with COVID-19 anxiety, according to a psychologist

"Perception of uncertainty can lead to productive problem-solving."

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As we work together to slow down the spread of COVID-19, our daily lives will be interrupted in ways that can feel scary or anxiety-inducing. But there are steps we can all take to maintain positive mental health, all while taking the precautions necessary to keep our communities healthy.

Jelena Kecmanovic is an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University and the founder and director of the Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute. She also makes for a good follow on Twitter, where she shares excellent mental health advice.

Below, Kecmanovic offers helpful strategies for keeping your anxiety in check as our communities respond to COVID-19, as well as tips for providing emotional support to the people in your life as they attempt to handle their own stress.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the future of COVID-19, and how it will affect our lives. Are there any strategies that people can use to deal with uncertainty specifically, and keep anxiety at bay during a situation like this?

First, it is worth examining our beliefs about uncertainty — maybe you believe that you can’t tolerate it, that it is unfair, that you have to worry to reduce uncertainty, or you equate uncertainty with negative outcomes. When we reflect upon our lives, we realize that we live with uncertainty already, that it is an unavoidable part of life.

Perception of uncertainty can lead to productive problem-solving. When it comes to things we have at least some control over, we can productively engage in problem-solving and planning (like making a plan about what to do if the kids don't have school or buying hand sanitizers). However, when we repetitively think about things we cannot control and go down the “what-if” rabbit hole, we only end up feeling more anxious.

"It is worth examining our beliefs about uncertainty."

When it comes to linking uncertainty to bad outcomes in our mind, it is important to remember that psychological research shows that people, on average, end up less emotionally affected by negative events that they predict, and that they end up adjusting to and coping with the negative outcomes better than they thought they would. Humans are generally a resilient species. And if a negative outcome comes to pass, ask yourself, “What can I still do, given that this has happened?”

When feeling overwhelmed by anxiety (which is future-oriented), it helps to focus on what is right in front of you. For example, you could describe five things that you see, four things that you hear, three things that you touch, two things that you smell, and one thing that you taste. You could breathe in such a way that your stomach rises and falls, each inhale lasting three seconds and exhale five seconds. You could focus on an activity or pursuit that is available to you now, one that aligns with your life purpose.

We’re also seeing varying degrees of panic over COVID-19 expressed on social media. How do you recommend people process and consider the worries of others while shaping their own state of mind?

I would suggest that people limit their time on social media (and regular media). Given that many people’s lives are less structured now because of working from home, not having scheduled events in the world, etcetera, we can easily slip into mindless consumption of media that will oversaturate us with stressful news and lead to more uncertainty and anxiety. Also, when feeling uncertain and anxious, our urge is to seek information and reassurance from various sources. Although this is helpful at first, these behaviors quickly turn into further feeding our anxiety.

That said, while using social media, it helps if you strive for active, deliberate engagement. For example, express empathy, encouragement, and support; share information from legitimate sources; interact with friends and acquaintances you can’t see in person. All of these can be psychologically helpful.

On Twitter, you mentioned that CBT and ACT strategies can be worth employing right now. Can you please expand on this — what are some examples of strategies that are worth trying out?

Most of the strategies I’ve mentioned above are consistent with CBT and/or ACT. Here are two more I would recommend:

  1. Watch for increases in drinking, unhealthy eating, impulse shopping, or binge-watching during these stressful times because these are likely ways we try to distract ourselves from anxiety and numb our emotions. Although temporarily effective, these avoidance strategies lead to more anxiety and worry over time.
  2. Make sure to do at least two things each day that you can look back and appreciate, actions that feed your sense of meaning, connection, or competence. They can be as small as checking in on a vulnerable relative or weeding your flower bed, or bigger, like putting together that online photo album for your adult child that you have been meaning to do for a long time.

If friends or family are ill and/or are in social quarantine, how can we still provide emotional support while not being with them in person?

Use any electronic means at your disposal, preferably video and not just audio, to get in touch with them regularly. Video platforms that you can just place on a table/floor while engaging in various activities of daily living (like eating dinner, playing with kids, etc.) are particularly beneficial as they more readily mimic real life.

In turn, do you have any advice for people who are engaging in social distancing and are nervous about having less social contact, and how that might affect their mental health?

We should not underestimate how hard social isolation can be, especially for people who already suffer from psychological problems like depression or anxiety and related disorders. Be mindful of not losing contact with people. Schedule regular online hangouts and phone chats; reach out to people in your social network via text. Do not hesitate to express your negative emotions or ask for help.

If your psychological difficulties are starting to affect your life, or if the negative emotions are not lifting, please contact a mental health professional. Many of them can offer secure teletherapy during this time.

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