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David R. Blackburn, PhD, on How to Cope with Anxiety About Coronavirus

If you’re feeling heightened levels of anxiety or fear because of the spread of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), you are not alone. It is only natural to be stressed during times of uncertainty.
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Baylor Scott & White Health

If you’re feeling heightened levels of anxiety or fear because of the spread of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), you are not alone. It is only natural to be stressed during times of uncertainty. But with these coping mechanisms, you can take care of yourself and your loved ones and look to the future with confidence.

Recognize that fear during a crisis is normal.

Fear often manifests as feelings of anxiety, worry and nervousness. You may experience panic episodes or feel a sense of apprehension or impending doom when thinking about the future. These feelings can be magnified during times of stress.

One of the primary reasons people experience increased levels of anxiety and fear is because of uncertainty. People who experience anxiety often worry about the future and ask “what if” questions. Similarly, they lament about the past by making “if only” statements. Rarely do they focus on the immediate present, living one day at a time.

Keep your mind focused on what you can do today to help yourself and those around you.

What is the difference between fear and anxiety?

Fear is instinctual and actually quite useful. For example, we should be fearful when a bear is prowling around our campsite. Fear in this illustration will keep us from falling back asleep and energize us to take our pre-planned actions to get out of the situation. In many situations, fear can help us survive a threat.

Anxiety, on the other hand, keeps us from enjoying our camping experience completely! Anxiety is when we get ahead of reality. Continuing with our camping example, you may think to yourself: What if there is a bear? This initial thought is not fear or worry; it aids us to pre-plan handling a possible bear encounter. Anxiety enters when we start thinking this way and continue to the worst case scenarios: What if there is a bear? What if it eats all my food? What if it tears down the tent? What if it attacks me or my family? What if someone gets eaten by the bear…?Those “what ifs” can cause a paralyzing feeling of anxiety.

Both fear and anxiety (or worry, if you prefer) can manifest physically in our bodies. Some physiological symptoms can include:

 Racing heart

 Tightness in your chest

 Stomach discomfort

 Trembling

 Lightheadedness

 Headaches

 Fatigue

 Racing thoughts, especially at night

It is important to keep in mind that there are real problems in life during which you may need to consider the things you can do to either solve (or at least manage) the problem. As individuals, we cannot solve the current COVID-19 problem. But we can do our part to implement proactive techniques like washing our hands, cleaning surfaces, covering coughs and sneezes, social distancing, and other measures as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How do I control my fear, worry and anxiety?

The best way to cope with fear is to confront the fear itself. For example, if you are afraid of riding on an elevator, the treatment would be to gently introduce you to riding on an elevator to overcome the fear. In terms of facing a fear of disease like COVID-19, it is helpful to be armed with solid, accurate information so you can respond accordingly — not out of fear.

Whenever you begin to feel anxious or afraid, follow this coping exercise step by step:

Name the thought. Say it out loud or write it down. Ask yourself this question about your thought: Is it a real or imaginary problem? A real problem is a bear that could wander into your campsite; an imaginary problem is a bear eating your family. If your thought is “real,” then you can work with it but if it is only imaginary or hypothetical, let’s backtrack your thought to find the reality in it. It is unlikely that a bear will eat my family but it is possible we could see a bear.

You are in control of your body. When you took the thought of the bear in the camp to the highest catastrophe, you likely experienced many of the physical symptoms previously noted. Your thoughts caused the physical difficulties! That means you can actually relieve yourself of them, too.

Note where you feel the most tension (neck, shoulders, stomach, etc.) and then increase the tension in the area by further tightening the muscles there. If you are by yourself, you may want to tense up every muscle in your whole body. Hold the tension for a count of 10, then release it — this release can either be all at once or progressively, one area at a time. Continue practicing this tense and relax exercise whenever you feel anxious. This exercise also helps you to tell the difference between a state of tension versus a state of relaxation.

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Focus on becoming calm. Once you have released the tension, shift your mind into neutral. Think of places where you feel particularly calm or content. It may be a real place you have been or a place you want to go. Find a photo to represent this safe place and keep it where you can see it often. Stay in this neutral place of relaxation and calm until you are ready for the next step.

Now you can take control. You are no longer anxious or worried. You are calm and relaxed. You can now efficiently make plans and implement them. You can be a leader in your family to help your loved ones successfully cope with the COVID-19 situation by reducing or eliminating worry. Now, you’re equipped to effectively deal with any anxiety-producing situations that may arise in the future.

Adjusting to a new normal

For now, it may be necessary to adjust to a new way of living, at least temporarily. Just remember that we are all facing this uncertainty together. During uncertain times, many people experience anxiety not just for themselves but also for their loved ones. It can help put your mind at ease to talk with your family and friends about what you’ll do if someone gets sick.

Rely on trustworthy sources of information. There is a lot of information circulating on the internet about COVID-19 — and not all of it is true or helpful. What is helpful is receiving solid, factual information about what is happening and digesting it in small quantities.

When it comes to your health, rely on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a trusted source. Stay up to date on the current recommendations for ways to protect yourself and your household from COVID-19.

We experience anxiety in response to a threat, whether it be real or perceived. It’s only natural. So, if you’re feeling anxious or stressed, know that you are not alone. However, if you do begin to experience paralyzing anxiety that keeps you from taking care of your daily responsibilities, you may want to consider talking to your doctor or a mental health professional.

Questions? We have answers.