Most of us are feeling at least a little anxious and stresses about what is happening around us right now (or not, as we are all supposed to be practicing social distancing as far as possible.) The thing is though, research study after research study has shown that stress and anxiety lower the effectiveness of the human immune system, which is one of the last things anyone needs in the face of a virus that is so mysterious at this point.
That is the bad news.
The good news, though (and there is good news) is that regardless of what is happening in the world, you can control your stress and anxiety. It may not be easy or automatic, but it is possible.
Most of the stress and anxiety we experience is not caused by external factors, but rather by our interpretation of external factors. The world has not run out of toilet paper at the time of writing, for example, and yet people are panicking that the shelves are empty. And despite the current statistics about coronavirus, anxiety about contracting a severe case is rampant.
This is NOT to say we should just go about our lives as we used to. Things are changing rapidly, and we need to adapt. It is so important to be safe and follow the health guidelines for protecting yourself and others.
Being overwhelmed with anxiety, however, can interfere with not only your health but also your ability to function. An anxious brain, for example, has a decreased ability to concentrate, focus, problem solve and be resilient, which can lead to more issues in your personal and professional life.
So, what can you do? Here are some tips to help you optimally cope with coronavirus anxiety:
Be proactive about lowering your stress levels.
Stress increases anxiety. Think of stress as being on a continuum from 0 (no stress at all) to 10 (the most stressed you’ve ever been). It is a subjective scale, but most experts agree that anything at a seven or higher tips into “the Red Zone.” And when we are in the Red Zone, we tend to think in more negative ways. That perpetuates anxiety, which increases negative thoughts, and it becomes a downward spiral.
The key is not to wait until you are in the Red Zone, but rather to address your stress before you get there. People tend to show signs of higher levels of stress that are unique to them. Maybe you feel a headache coming on, or you start grinding your teeth, or bouncing your leg up and down.
Whatever it is, become aware of your personal stress signs Then, whenever you notice your stress level rise, do something healthy and helpful to reduce that stress. Jump on your bed, go for a walk – you can as long as you keep that six foot distance – put on a favorite tune and dance around, watch a funny video to make you laugh—whatever makes you feel lighter.
Remember, you are not helpless.
Have you ever had to wait for the cable guy to show up to set up services? They may say they will be there between 8:00 and noon, but when you still haven’t heard from them and it’s 2:00? That makes you feel, well, stressed out.
This is a type of learned helplessness, a term in psychology that basically translates to, “There is nothing I can do and that feels horrible.” Learned helplessness can cause anxiety and even lead to depression.
You may feel like there is nothing you can do during this unprecedented time. And yet, it is vital to remember that there are always two strategies to dealing with any problem. One is problem-focused, where you change the problematic nature of what is going on. While you might not be able to personally cure COVID-19, you can do your part by engaging in social distancing and hand washing.
The other is a strategy called emotion-focused coping. That entails changing your emotional reaction to the event. Staying out of the Red Zone, focusing on ways to help others, practicing gratitude… all of these are ways to feel better emotionally. While you might not be able to change everything that is going on, you can change your reaction to it. And that can help reduce your anxiety.
Use logic rather than emotion.
Worry can perpetuate anxiety. The thought of “what if” something bad happens, like, “What if I run out of toilet paper?” or “What if this lasts for months and months?” can perpetuate and augment anxiety. When we think in “what if” terms, we tend to emotionally react as if what we fear might happen is inevitable.
Here is a practical example. Imagine that it’s summer and 100 degrees outside. Now, let’s say you see someone in a long winter coat with a scarf and hat. Wouldn’t you think something was a little strange with that person? Probably. And what if that person then told you that they were just getting ready for winter, which would arrive in four months?
That still makes no sense, right? Sweating for four months until it’s cold enough to have to wear that coat causes unnecessary discomfort. And yet that’s what we do when we suffer from “what if” syndrome. We emotionally react as if something is already happening, even if it isn’t.
That is different, though, than having that winter coat in the closet for when you need it. It is important to consider worst-case scenarios and take steps to either prevent them or establish systems to implement if they take place. But emotionally reacting as if those fears are imminent is like wearing that winter coat when it’s hot out.
Unfollow the panic!
Unfollow those negative Nells and Nelsons on social media. Turn off the news. Stay away from websites or outlets that leave you feeling more anxious. Mute toxic texts. Hit “delete” on comments or “friends” who bring you down. You are allowed to prioritize your mental health!
Differentiate between possibility and probability.
There is a difference between possibility and probability, but the spread of information and misinformation can cloud that. While the statistics are changing by the hour, it is not likely that you will get the virus and develop serious complications. Yes, continue to take precautions to stop the likelihood of getting or spreading the virus (stay home, especially if you’re sick; wash your hands; cover your mouth when you cough; clean frequently touched surfaces daily). Just don’t confuse the potential to be ill with the likelihood that it will happen.
Take advantage of this time.
How many times have you thought, I wish I had more time to… spend with my family, exercise, meditate, clean…? Guess what? Your wish has been granted! Try to embrace this change of pace and do those things you’ve been wanting to do. When you execute tasks you have been putting off or enjoy some time focused on yourself, that will help reduce your anxiety.