Ways to deal with anxiety during coronavirus
It can be hard to maintain psychological equilibrium during a worldwide pandemic. A nationwide Gallop poll conducted in late March and early April indicated that 60 percent of Americans reported feeling stressed and anxious. As the months drag on with no let-up in sight in some places, that number will likely increase.
“I think there is just a sense of overall angst and anxiety,” said psychologist Debra Ciavola, RN, PhD, executive director of Behavioral Health Services at Cape Cod Healthcare. “But one thing we do forget is that it’s normal to feel anxious. We have a declared pandemic with a lot of flooding of messages that contradict each other at times. There’s no sense of equilibrium, but you wouldn’t expect to have a sense of equilibrium right now.”
Some anxiety is not only normal but also healthy, she said. It’s what prompts us to practice helpful behaviors such as wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing, washing our hands and using hand sanitizer.
“I look at anxiety in multiple ways,” Ciavola said. “There is anxiety that can overwhelm us and stop us dead cold in our tracks, but if you normalize anxiety it alerts us and prompts us to adapt. It’s almost like a signal that makes us pay attention. I think if there wasn’t a certain level of anxiety, there wouldn’t be as many people following the rules.”
People tend to be afraid of anxiety which makes them want to avoid it. Instead of rejecting anxiety, she recommends that people recognize it and label it. She also tells people that it’s important not to judge yourself too harshly for feeling anxious.
“Be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to be human,” she said. “Just don’t let it run the show. That’s really what mental health is.”
When to Seek Treatment
Many people are experiencing low moods that don’t necessarily need to be treated by an expert, she said. Examples would include feeling more fatigued than normal and not having our usual energy levels. Anxiety that has progressed to the next level requires treatment – and sooner is better.
Symptoms of overwhelming anxiety or depression include:
- Feeling like you can’t get out of your own skin.
- Difficulty concentrating or reading.
- A change in appetite where you are eating either more or less than usual.
- Trouble sleeping (either waking up in the middle of the night or not being able to fall asleep because your mind is racing).
- Abusing substances like alcohol and drugs to help you get by.
- Frequent crying or feeling weepy.
- Feeling immobile or unable to manage your day.
“This is not getting any easier because there is not an end point,” said Ciavola. “If you knew that three weeks from now this is going to end, you would see an uptake in how people felt. We’re social beings by nature and with social isolation, we’re going to feel more disconnected.”
Following are ways Ciavola suggested to reduce anxiety and stress:
- Avoid watching too much news about the coronavirus. Watch just enough to learn the latest safety advice and rules.
- Set smart and realistic goals. This is not the time to expect to paint your whole house.
- Face to face time with family and friends is like a mental health vitamin. Schedule times to get together. Stay aware and remember to socially distance and/or wear a mask.
- Stick to a routine that is similar to your normal routine.
- Don’t work at home in your pajamas. Take a shower and get dressed as if you were going to work outside your home. Set structure for your day.
- If you have children at home, create routines and provide structure for them as well.
- Practice mindfulness with apps like Headspace or BellyBio.
- Cultivate a spiritual or religious practice.
- Exercise regularly. “So much is available for free on the Intranet. Or, just dance to your favorite music,” she said.
- Eat nourishing food and avoid snacking on too much junk food, especially high fat foods that increase your cravings.
- Label your emotions so they don’t overwhelm you, such as “I am frustrated that I can’t hang out with my friends.”
- Laughter is the biggest stress buster there is, so find things to laugh about, whether it is a comedy on television, listening to comical Podcasts or simply watching the antics of a pet.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by your emotions, reach out for help. Call Cape Cod Healthcare Behavioral Health Outpatient Services at 508-790-3360. Another resource that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week is the American Red Cross Disaster Distress Helpline. Call 800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746.
This Won’t Last
Even though the coronavirus and the ensuing shutdown of massive parts of society is expected to take a short-term toll on people’s mental health, Ciavola doesn’t expect long-term problems. She cites 9/11 as an example.
“People could have some PTSD,” she said “But they are finding that three to five years after 9/11 there were minimal effects as far as interfering with people’s sense of well-being. I’d like to think that will happen with this too.”
Ciavola believes that some good can come out of the pandemic and subsequent shutdown. She notes that families are spending more quality time together. Instead of feeling overwhelmed with dragging their children from one organized activity to the next, parents are biking, flying kites on the beach and doing other safe, healthy and free activities.
“I hope we don’t go back to our normal,” she said. “I hope that we have learned lessons and new ways to interact with our family and maybe change our communication styles and improve how we reach out to one another.”