Anxiety over COVID-19? Try these techniques
Do the fast-changing health headlines have you (or your kids) on edge? Stay calm in the chaos by practicing these expert-approved strategies
Even if COVID-19 hasn’t afflicted you or a loved one personally, it’s likely crept into all aspects of your life—home, work, and even your hobbies.
It doesn’t help that with each news report about COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, your thoughts may range from mild anxiety to full-blown panic—and back again. Ultimately, we’re just not sure how any of this is going to play out.
And that’s the problem. “All our anxiety about the virus seems to come down to uncertainty,” says Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Annville, Pennsylvania. “But certainty is only a feeling, not a fact. We can’t ever feel 100 percent sure of anything. The new coronavirus outbreak makes these feelings so explicit—but uncertainty is always part of life.”
If you’re struggling with anxiety about COVID-19, you’re not alone. Take a deep breath and follow this advice from mental health experts.
Stay-calm trick #1: Worry creatively
Worry is the ability to generate lots of negative outcomes in our minds, explains Catherine Pittman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.
“Worry was very helpful for our ancestors,” she says. “Let’s say they saw a tiger wandering around. Some of them might think, Oh, that’s interesting, [and] then carry on with whatever they were doing. Those people were less likely to survive. But the people who worried about the tiger tended to spring into action—they might stay up all night watching out for the tiger. We are the descendants of the worriers. We have worry circuits in our brains, but fortunately, we also have planning circuits.”
“You don’t need a perfect plan,” Pittman says. “You just need a plan. Too much worry activates your brain’s amygdala and makes you anxious. Replace the worry—and avoid the anxiety—with some act that’s positive.”
Stay-calm trick #2: Fight fear with facts
There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet, from unfounded conspiracy theories to outright scams. And all of it seems custom-designed to ramp up your anxiety. Next time you find yourself going down an electronic rabbit-hole, try to pause, take a deep breath and step away from your device.
“Pick one trusted source of information, like the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or the WHO [World Health Organization], and stick with it,” advises Smedley.
Stay-calm trick #3: But also, go on a news diet
Everyone is on news overload, especially when it comes to COVID-19. Keeping up with the latest information could turn into a full-time job. “But it’s not likely that it’ll make you healthier or happier,” says Smedley. Instead, she suggests, consume your news in smaller portions.
“Give yourself permission to not watch the news constantly,” she says. “At first, it might seem that keeping abreast of every COVID-19 development is helping you connect with others and feel that you’re not alone. But at the same time, you may be experiencing much higher levels of stress and anxiety.”
The easiest way to do that might be to set a limit. “For some people,” Smedley explains, “that might be 15 minutes after work to talk about it to a friend or partner. Give yourself permission to share your worries and talk about the news—but then switch the subject.”
For limiting online activity, a great strategy is to set an alarm on your phone. When the alarm goes off, then it’s time for a news update about COVID-19. This helps place controls on the amount of COVID-19 information you consume and prevents it from being the center of your attention, Smedley says.
Stay-calm trick #4: See into the future—hypothetically
Imagination can be a powerful tool to calm your fears—and show you that you can handle whatever comes your way.
“For some people, it really helps to visualize a realistic scenario where they’re exposed to COVID-19 and develop some flu-like symptoms,” says Smedley. “Imagine what you would do [and] how you would feel. Imagine yourself coping, and then looking back at [when you were sick], thinking: That was tough, but I got through it.”
Visualizing the outcomes can help you move beyond fear and find solutions. “If you’re anxious,” says Smedley, “you might not immediately be able to see yourself as being able to cope. But playing out that movie in your mind can give you a sense of control—it can help you realize through thought-experiment that you would actually have ways to cope.”
3 ways to keep your kids calm
Parents’ anxieties can be super-contagious. “It’s important for parents to manage how they’re responding to the coronavirus fears, because that has a big impact on how their children respond,” says Miyume McKinley, a licensed clinical social worker who treats children and adolescents in Los Angeles. “Kids see and hear everything we think they don’t notice.”
These strategies will help ease their fears:
Limit access to news and social media. “Refrain from discussing all the details with [your] children—gear your conversation toward their developmental level,” suggests McKinley. “Check in with kids about what they know and try to respond to their specific concerns. They might be worried about Grandma, or they might just be wondering if their game will be canceled."
Be positive. In the midst of all the worrisome news, try to find a positive message. “Instead of saying, ‘Schools are shutting down because of coronavirus,’” says McKinley, “you might say, ‘The school is concerned about our safety—they want everyone to take time and rest at home and take care of themselves.’”
Take action. Let your kids know that, no matter their age, there are tangible things they can do. “Treat this like you would other emergencies,” suggests psychologist Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D.
“With a snowstorm, for instance, you’d make sure you have shovels, gloves, and hats on hand. For coronavirus, your kids can focus on washing their hands and following CDC guidelines. Finding one solution and living with it can help during all the uncertainty,” she says.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department.