Learning to cope with the anxiety and fear related to the coronavirus pandemic, or COVID-19, is now on everyone’s mind. When faced with the unknown or an unpredictable threat, our minds are meant to overestimate threats and dangers and to underestimate our ability to cope. Those with pre-existing anxiety conditions, such as excessive worry and health anxiety, are more prone to extreme fear in these times. Humans are resilient, so you may not know it, but you already have coping strategies necessary to deal with this threat and may even already have activated your psychological resources. Nonetheless, here are a number strategies to boost your psychological immune system in these life-changing times.
Normalize Fear And Anxiety. They Are Good For You!
People tend to appraise their emotions as being either 'good' or 'bad'. For example, feeling love and excitement are good, whereas feeling anxiety and anger are bad.
However, when viewing our emotions in this manner, we are judging our inner experiences, which will only exacerbate what we are feeling and make them more intense. Instead, it is healthier psychologically to see all our emotions as being good, but then categorizing them as either 'pleasant' or 'unpleasant'.
Why see emotions this way? Emotions are valuable sources of information that tell us about threats, what is meaningful to us, what we feel is important, what we do not like, etc.
In the case of anxiety, this powerful emotion informs us that we are perceiving a danger or threat that is either physically-based (e.g. bodily injury, death) or emotionally-based (e.g. I will fail this exam, What if I am late?). So it is normal to feel anxious in these times because we are concerned for the safety of ourselves and our loved ones.
Get into ‘action-mode’ and follow the strategies below to build your psychological resiliency rather than just being stuck in the feeling. Learn to accept your anxiety as well. Trying not to feel anxious or attempting to fight off the feeling will likely make it worse. If you want to be creative about acceptance, imagine your anxiety as an image or even a figure, person or character (e.g. a cartoon character might work well if you like humour) and say, “Thanks for telling me I’m important as well as my loved ones and I need to be careful and prepare”. You can get still more creative by even imaging shake hands or give a wave to image or figure that represents your anxiety.
Keep Informed But Put Limits From Checking The Media Too Much
It is of critical importance to keep informed at this time. That being said, when we feel anxious it is common for us to check things over-and-over as a way to reassure ourselves that everything is okay. However, research shows that excessive checking creates a vicious cycle in which continued checking just makes us more anxious, as it actually ends up decreasing our confidence over time.
I know this may be easy to say, but limit your checking of the media to one or two times per day. Also choose a few sources that you trust for news on the coronavirus. Good sources are the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centres For Disease Control (CDC) or Health Canada. Add one or two reliable local news sources as well to inform yourself of what is going on in your area.
So overall limit yourself to 3-4 sources and check the news once, to a maximum of twice per day. Make sure to stay away from any sites or blogs that discuss conspiracy theories about the COVID-19, as this information is not helpful and will only make you more anxious, as well as spread false information.
Too Much Media May Put You Into Hypervigilant Mode
As mentioned above, limit excessive exposure to the media. With the ‘availability bias’, we weigh information we can immediately recall more heavily. Watching the number of cases of COVID-19 increase every day may put you in a 'hypervigilant mode' in which your fear and anxiety increase over time. It is important to keep the numbers we see on a daily basis in perspective. At the time of this writing, the Johns Hopkins Resource Centre for the coronavirus had identified 196,640 total confirmed cases, but 80,840 of these cases having totally recovered.
Watch The “What Ifs”
“What if …” is a series of words that should probably be banned psychologically from our minds. Using these words too frequently tends to lead to difficulty tolerating uncertainty, resulting in worry and anxiety. If you find yourself worrying excessively about something that is unproductive or that you cannot control regarding COVID-19, try to ‘let-go’.
A strategy that many people find helping is to imagine the worry as an object moving away in time in space to create a psychological distance with the worry. Examples include visualizing the worry as a balloon floating away across the sky or as leaves rolling down a stream. Creating distance in your mind with the worry should help calm down the anxiety, but not make it go completely away. You will likely have to repeat this strategy frequently throughout the day.
Have A Plan To Deal With Uncertainty
Because we have a perceived lack of control about the developments related to COVID-19, we can feel uncertain and anxious about what to do. Learning to tolerate uncertainty, what many psychologists have suggested in posts and articles as a way to deal with the current pandemic, is actually something that can take weeks and even months to do so.
A more effective strategy to deal with uncertainty in the 'here-and-now' is to control what you can by having a plan. For example: Make sure loved ones are safe. Make sure you know how to self-isolate in case you contract the virus. Make a budget for the next few months. Do you have access to money if you need? Where is the closest clinic to you in case you need to get tested?
Follow your plans once you have outlined them. Then ‘let-go’ of any “what ifs” about your plans and think, “I will cross that bridge ‘if’ I ever get to it”.
Stay In Contact With Loved Ones Virtually
Social connection is a hallmark of being human. Those who are psychologically resilient also have a strong support network. Although we are not aware of this, our brains interact with each other. Social contact release oxytocin, or more affectionately called the ‘cuddle hormone’. It is oxytocin that gives us that ‘feel good’ sensation when around loved ones and this hormone even helps to repair damaged tissue. For example, after injury, it helps with angiogenesis, which is the growth of new blood vessels. Make sure to stay in contact with loved ones, especially those that may be alone, using virtual methods in order to adhere to the social distancing guidelines.
Talk To Your Kids
We know that kids even of a young age can soak up information and hear more than we think. Even if your children are very young, chances are that they have heard something about the coronavirus and its spreading. As parents we want our kids to feel good all the time, so we can sometimes be dismissive of emotions (e.g. Don’t worry, everything will be fine) or punitive (e.g. Stop feeling that way!).
However, a more effective strategy is to use emotional coaching. Talk to your children and make sure to validate their fears no matter what you think. If they have a hard time naming their feelings, give them some time to describe them, and then help them label them if they have a hard time doing so themselves. Then have them come up with some coping strategies. Again, give them some time, even minutes to think of ways they can cope before you make any suggestions. You may also find the following guide from the CDC about how to speak to your kids helpful.
Seek Out Professional Help If You Need
If you feel the need to talk to a psychologist, or other mental health specialist, do not hesitate to do so. COVID-19 has instilled fear and anxiety throughout the human population, so consulting for even a few sessions for this fear, or any other pre-existing condition, should be fruitful in helping you reduce your overall anxiety level.
Even though we are engaging in social distancing to help reduce the spread of the virus, I have moved my practice online and continue to help my clients through this medium.
If you choose to consult a psychologist, I would suggest looking for a specialist in anxiety who uses ‘Next-Generation’ psychotherapy services, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) or Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). These approaches are more short-term, present-focused, structured and practical.
These next group of strategies may come as a surprise to you. As mentioned above, we can sometimes underestimate our ability to cope when faced with adversity. Despite the harm COVID-19 is causing, there is hope we will overcome it. As examples, the genome of the coronavirus was sequenced within nine-days and publicly shared. In China, 50 research articles where published within 20 days. And reputable journals like the Lancet, Nature and the Journal of Medical Virology fast-tracked research papers so they could be shared with the scientific community as soon as possible.
Too often we may have a jaded view of the world and humanity and see a ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude as dominating. Although there are many instances of this being true, cooperation is a much overlooked human quality. Without cooperation, we would not be enjoying the quality of life we have today. So here are a few ways to see opportunity in the moment. In times like these, we can choose to either move towards something meaningful or move away from something meaningful.
Choose To Live In Complete Fear Or Embrace Life In A Prosocial Way
Although the global pandemic is causing fear and uncertainty, we can face the adversity and embrace what we value. Here is a beautiful display of this happening in Italy. Of course we must embrace life in a prosocial manner while adhering to the social distancing guidelines, otherwise we would not be following this principle.
Seek Out Opportunity
Although these are difficult times for all of us, take a step back and identify any opportunities since we will be spending the majority of our time at home. For example, spend more time with spouses and loved ones, do some cool arts and craft projects if you have kids, clean or declutter your home, reorganize a room, read those books you always wanted to.
Be Aware Of Your Gratitudes
Go through the day with your loved and names some gratitudes you have for the day. Was it seeing your loved ones and spending time with them. Listening to music. Even small gratitudes like a smile or comforting hug are invaluable. The day is full of small things that repeat over-and-over and that make us happy. Name and enjoy them. Research in positive psychology has shown that keeping a gratitude journal daily increases our overall level of happiness. Naming daily gratitudes is a nightly ritual we do in our family.
Take Stock Of What You Value And What Is Meaningful To You
Value are pillars, or the foundation, of what is meaningful to us and of our deepest desires of how we want be as people. Values are different than goals. Goals we can tick-off in a checkbox. Values continue forever without end and drive our behaviour. For example, marriage is a goal we can achieve. The marriage is done after the ceremony. But being a caring, loving and supportive spouse are values - I choose to act with care, love and support daily, as these values drive the qualities I want to have as a partner.
Here is a quick way to start identifying your values. Take a notepad and answer these two questions: 1) Who is important to me and what qualities do I want to develop in these relationships? and 2) What is important to me?
In these difficult times, you can also think of what is most important to you. For example, spending time with your loved ones. Keeping connected with the people you love. Doing pleasurable and leisure activities like reading or listening to music. Remaining healthy. Keeping order in your life. Feeling safe and secure. Self-care like sleeping an eating healthy. Write down what you value on your notepad.
Identify specific behaviours you do when you engage in each value. For example, when I read and listen to music I am living my value of leisure.
Get into the habit of asking yourself this question as often as possible throughout the day: “Right now, am I moving towards me and my values or am I moving away from myself and my values?” This question can help us ‘snap-out’ of moments in which we are moving away from our values and reorient us towards them.
Try not to forget these wise words, even after the pandemic ends. They can guide you on a daily basis towards living a meaningful life.
I hope you find these suggestion helpful in coping with the coronavirus pandemic and helpful in building your psychological resiliency. Please take the opportunity and share these psychological principles with your friends and family and loved ones so you can help them manage anxiety and fear they may be experiencing.
I am a psychologist in Montreal who is specialized in CBT and ACT. Feel free to Contact Me for questions and comments.