With no vaccine or therapeutic drug yet in sight, COVID-19 and the constant barrage of disturbing new information about the pandemic are fueling fear, stress and anxiety. And, because the stay-at-home order prevents us from seeing loved ones and friends, social isolation only exacerbates these feelings.
Here are techniques to help manage your anxiety — from experts.
Control what you can
“For any situation that tends to elevate anxiety, whether it’s a pandemic or otherwise, the feeling of not having any mastery over it, and not having any control, is part of what contributes to our anxiety,” said Dr. Lynn Bufka, director of practice research and policy at the American Psychological Association. Bufka, a licensed clinical psychologist who researches anxiety, added that the novelty of COVID-19 contributes to the lack of understanding.
She said to prevent immobilization, focus on things you can control, such as moderating sources of information. People process information differently, she explained. Some prefer info overload; for example, following the news every day to learn as much about the pandemic as possible. Others may only focus on how the outbreak affects them personally — such as knowing when a nearby grocery store is open. Bufka said it’s helpful to understand what kind of information seeker you are and match your intake accordingly.
“Choose smart access in terms of how much information, when, what sources, both actual news sources as well as social media,” Bufka said. She herself has been consuming news about the effect of the COVID-19 outbreak on her state and other information that directly impacts her life, instead of reading every article about the symptoms of coronavirus.
Use your creativity
As more places adopt “stay at home” orders, the voluntary quarantine puts a strain on how we maintain social connection, which Bufka said is known to help well-being. She said during this time of physical separation, bridging the gap by using creative methods is worth the effort.
“Whether it’s a virtual happy hour, or a virtual coffee hour, or using Zoom and having dinner together,” Bufka said, referring to videoconferencing software that is commonly used among businesses.
Texting — or even writing letters and postcards — can help connect us to each other, she said.
Ask for help
“A lot of people who have … never had mental health challenges are calling us because they’re feeling really, really anxious,” said Alexa James, the executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI, a grassroots mental health organization located in Chicago, offers a free helpline.
“Folks really just need a touch and need a clinician to talk to and process these powerless feelings,” James said.
NAMI also offers virtual support groups, which are safe spaces where callers can connect with others who are experiencing similar mental health issues. James called the coronavirus pandemic a “mental health emergency” because the uncertainty, fear and anxiety is so widespread. She added that this moment could help destigmatize the act of asking for help with mental health challenges and illnesses.
“Everyone feels very normalized knowing that every single person is having some sort type of emotional response to this current situation,” James said.
Some methods of addressing anxiety are simple and concrete, like scheduling a virtual meet-up or making a phone call.
But others demand a little more introspection and self-reliance, like finding a way to focus on the positive in the middle of a pandemic. The ability to experience positive emotions is a critical coping skill, according to Northwestern University social scientist Judith Moskowitz. She witnessed the power of positivity while conducting research in the early 1990s on another major health crisis: the AIDS epidemic.
During interviews with men who were caring for their stricken partners, Moskowitz received feedback that spurred a change. The caregivers challenged Moskowitz and her colleagues, saying: “You’re not asking about the good things that are happening and we want to talk about those.” So, the researchers added a question to their interviews that probed for something positive or meaningful.
The study found that 99% of the time caregivers were able to come up with a happy memory. Some were simple things, like a beautiful sunset, and others were more emotional, like watching their sick partner enjoy a home-cooked meal.
Of course, she said, the trick is finding a balance. “This is not to say that we should deny that things are difficult or pretend it’s not happening, or suppress negative emotions,” Moskowitz added.
Still, she said, those early studies during the AIDS epidemic offered lessons that are applicable today.
Moskowitz herself, for example, is practicing positivity by collecting news stories about people helping others during the pandemic, such as a young woman and her family who distributed food after her Bat Mitzvah was canceled.
“There are, honestly, always good things happening,” she said. “As hard as it can seem, when you’re in the midst of something stressful, that there could possibly be anything good, there’s always something good.”
Carrie Shepherd covers arts and culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @cshepherd.