When you already have an anxiety disorder, and a real pandemic hits, you can feel especially lost and terrified.
Clinical psychologist Regine Galanti, Ph.D, helps her clients recognize that their anxiety is a false alarm—“it’s not your house on fire, it’s a pizza burning in the toaster.” But because of Coronavirus, she said, your house is actually ablaze.
In other words, it makes sense that you’re anxious.
It makes sense that your symptoms have flared up or gotten worse, agreed Emily Bilek, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor at University of Michigan.
Bilek noted that people understandably have genuine fears about their jobs, their health, their homes, their finances, and the pandemic’s short- and long-term impact on society.
But while your anxiety might be peaking, there are many helpful actions you can take. One of the best steps is to schedule a teletherapy session with your therapist (or find a therapist to work with). Here are other tips to try:
Set limits. Keeping the TV on your favorite news network and scrolling social media all day long puts you in a constant state of anxiety. “[H]earing about all the danger increases our perception of the threat,” said Galanti, who has a private practice in Long Island, N.Y. Instead, she encouraged readers to carve out specific times to check for updates. This way you stay informed without being blindsided and bombarded with negative information.
Another helpful limit to set is not talking about the pandemic: “Tell your friends and family that you’ll be changing the subject when it comes up,” Galanti said. “This will not only help limit your anxiety, but also help others as well.”
Practice sustainable self-care. Prior to the pandemic, you might’ve relied on a slew of self-care practices: You went to a specific yoga studio you love, meditated on your commute, and took long weekend walks. Not having these habits when you need them most might lead you to over-do it at home.
Instead, Bilek recommended picking realistic, attainable activities. Do a 10-minute yoga video on YouTube. Drink plenty of water. Take 5-minute deep breathing breaks from work. Take care of yourself in small ways.
Schedule daily worry sessions. “It’s normal to worry right now, but it doesn’t have to take over your day,” said Galanti, also author of the new book Anxiety Relief for Teens: Essential CBT Skills and Mindfulness Practices to Overcome Anxiety and Stress. When a worry thought pops up, she suggested jotting it down quickly and re-reading this list during a 15- to 20-minute worry session.
Curb caffeine. Bilek noted that we tend to use caffeine to cope with negative feelings, such as boredom and fatigue. However, “this can make us more vulnerable to physical feelings of anxiety, and thus panic attacks.” Plus, she said, caffeine can mimic the physiological symptoms of different health concerns.
Instead of mindlessly chugging three cups of coffee or soda throughout the day, slowly savor one small cup in the morning with your breakfast.
Spot patterns in your panic. If you’re prone to panic attacks, it’s easy to confuse those symptoms (e.g., shortness of breath) with the respiratory symptoms of Coronavirus, Galanti said. This can lead you to go to the ER and risk possible exposure to the virus.
This is why it’s important to pay attention to what precipitates your symptoms. Galanti pointed out that panic symptoms typically come and go, while virus symptoms do not. So, if you’re having trouble breathing as you’re watching the news or thinking about the pandemic, it’s panic.
“The best way to manage panic [attacks] is to embrace them. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but the more you face panic, the more you’ll see that [panic attacks aren’t] as dangerous as you fear and that you can cope with them.”
Get good sleep. Bilek stressed the importance of maintaining a consistent sleep schedule—waking up and going to bed at the same time—even if your days are much more flexible now. Replace TV watching or social media scrolling with one soothing practice. For example, before bed, you might listen to a self-compassionate meditation, take a warm bath, or try one of these sleep-promoting yoga poses.
Get grounded. When Bilek’s clients are overwhelmed with worry or anxiety, she suggests they identify things in their environment that they normally don’t notice. This can include searching for a unique shade of green, counting the number of different sounds you hear, or looking for an interesting texture, she said. “By focusing on our senses, we are necessarily brought into the present, even if just for a moment.”
Look to your values. “We can’t change our circumstances, but we can choose what kind of person we want to be in this crisis and act in accordance with our values,” Galanti said. For example, instead of searching for toilet paper on Amazon again, you do a craft with your kids or watch Frozen 2 “for the bazillionth time.” Instead of checking the news, you FaceTime with your mom.
If you’re still struggling with increasing, worsening symptoms of anxiety, don’t hesitate to seek professional support. In fact, you can talk to a licensed therapist right now. You can get through this. And you will.