The past week I’ve been experiencing anxiety. I’m so fortunate in my personal life and I’m grateful to have such a beautiful place to stay sheltered in place. But, being home day in and day out is taking a toll. I don’t think watching the news and surfing the internet for COVID-19 and political news is helping me either. When I felt my heart rate racing and my hands trembling on a drive home from taking groceries to my dad, I turned off the news and found a station playing Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdown from 1970. As I listened to familiar songs from my childhood like Carpenters “Close to You” and the Beatles “Long and Winding Road,” I calmed down, sang along and found myself smiling.
Today, I quit looking at the news of spikes in COVID cases and wondered if other people were suffering from anxiety, too. The answer is yes. A quick search led me to so many articles with tips to handle anxiety and links to hotlines and health experts.
Here are a few excerpts from the articles. Please click on the links to read the whole articles. They are well worth it.
Jennifer—a postdoc—had been working from home for 4 weeks. Anxious about the COVID-19 pandemic, she was having trouble focusing on her research. She knew her mental health had deteriorated and that she needed advice to stay motivated. So she reached out to Steven, a friend who also happens to be a practicing psychiatrist. He didn’t solve all of Jennifer’s problems. But he did provide a new lens to view them through—as well as concrete steps she could take to improve her mental health. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
JENNIFER: In academia, we are often encouraged to suck it up when problems arise. I am currently writing two papers. I know others who are writing grants. Should we expect to use this “time away from the lab” to be superproductive?
STEVEN: Working in a COVID-19 world is not normal. You shouldn’t dwell on guilt if you’re not functioning at maximum productivity levels. You need time to process the grief that comes with the loss of your former work life and social life.
J: I occasionally find myself spiraling down a hole of despair, spending hours reading about all the terrible things happening in the world. The news makes me feel sad and helpless, which in turn zaps all the motivation out of my day. What should I do?
S: In these spirals, it is important to recognize that there’s a lot happening right now that you can’t control. Even though it is incredibly hard, shift your attention to things you can control. For example, you cannot control the number of people who are dying from COVID-19. But you can do your part to maintain social distancing.
J: I am worried about members of my family getting sick. I’m also worried about my future in academia because many universities are instituting hiring freezes. How can I get rid of all this worry?
S: Try compartmentalizing the worry into a time block. Spend 20 minutes each day writing down and acknowledging your feelings. Then, think about reasonable solutions. For example, you could brainstorm how you could secure funding to extend your postdoc, which would give you more time to publish papers and apply for academic jobs next year. You could also learn about jobs that might interest you in other sectors, such as industry.
J: Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. I’m physically tired, but my brain is restless. I end up just lying there, thinking and worrying about everything that’s going on. Is this anxiety?
S: It could be. Anxiety is a persistent feeling of worry. Sometimes it is constant, while other times it rushes over you all at once. When dealing with anxiety, it’s important to assess your emotions and talk about what you’re going through with trusted friends and family. You should also practice activities that are restorative and relaxing, especially before bedtime. Listen to music, take a hot shower, read a book, or do something else that you enjoy.
From the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website I discovered Top Ten COVID-19 Anxiety Reduction Strategies by Ken Goodman.
Goodman is the author of The Anxiety Solution Series: Your Guide to Overcoming Panic, Worry, Compulsions and Fear, A Step-by-Step Self-help Audio Program., and Break Free from Anxiety, a coloring, self-help book for anxiety sufferers. Ken Goodman is an ADAA board member and Clinical Fellow. Here are the first three of his tips.
During this time of national crisis, we must manage two things simultaneously: 1) Protect ourselves from the Coronavirus, and 2) Protect ourselves from anxiety. If your anxiety, fear, and worry has been overwhelming, put these ten strategies into practice.
1. Media Distancing: To stop the spread of COVID-19, we’ve had to practice social distancing. But to stop the spread of anxiety, we must distance ourselves from the media. All anxiety stems from uncertainty and an active imagination which produces catastrophic thoughts. The media, which is 24/7 Coronavirus and virtually all negative, is the driver of those thoughts. (The CDC estimates that the flu this season has killed between 24,000 and 62,000 people in the United States. We are not panicking because the flu is familiar and the media does not give it attention). My patients who are the most anxious about the Coronavirus are those who are consuming the most news from social media, online, and traditional outlets. The more anxious you feel, the more you should distance from the media. And if you are extremely fearful, stop watching and reading altogether. Do no Google or research. Stop checking the latest news about the virus (as well as your investments). Any vital information you need to know, you will find out.
2. Do Not Engage with Worry. Take Action: Whether you are worried about contracting the virus, your struggling business, or being unemployed, the more your mind focuses on worst-case scenarios, the more anxious you feel. You can’t stop thoughts from entering your mind, but you can choose to stop dwelling and you can choose to take action to solve problems. There is a huge difference between worrying and problem solving. When your mind tries to bait you into worry, don’t take the bait. If you do, like a fish in a lake, you will be caught. Anxiety will try to bait you with many “what if” questions. Don’t answer them. Respond, “Not taking the bait,” turn your attention away, and focus elsewhere. Spinning your wheels with questions that don’t have answers will take you down the rabbit hole of fear. Instead, find creative measures to get you through this storm until you can get back on your feet. None of these measures will be comfortable. Like an umbrella and a raincoat, we use them to get through the storm, not to stop it. Much of anxiety stems from a lack of confidence in our ability to handle challenges. Push yourself to take one uncomfortable step at a time. With financial stress these steps might include seeking out loans, asking for help, paying portions of bills, cutting back on spending, and finding creative ways to make money including selling items on Ebay. The goal is to stay afloat until the storm passes.
3. Focus on Present Odds: All deaths are tragic, but we must maintain proper perspective. The vast majority of people infected with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms or no symptoms at all. And the mortality rate if you do contract the virus ranges from 1.4% to 3% (The exact mortality rate is unknown at this time). The number of deaths will continue to climb (and the news will report every one) and yet, the chance of you or a loved-one dying is still remote, especially with everyone’s effort to maintain distance and isolate. But death is possible and that’s why anxious people take the bait and dwell. Possibility becomes probability. Remind yourself of the present odds, which are very good. After all, if you went to Vegas and had a 97% chance of winning, you would be excited to take those odds. If you take care of yourself properly, even if you are in a higher risk category, your risk of death is still low.
After the complete list of ten tips Goodman said this:
This list is a recipe to reduce anxiety. Review it again and put it into practice. Otherwise it’s like reading a cooking recipe in bed – in the end you have produced nothing and have nothing delicious to eat. So…start cooking.
Walking and backyard bungee swims are not enough to keep the stress away. My dear friend Linda told me that she and her family are doing a workout challenge on Youtube by Chloe Ting. I decided to check it out and the workouts are perfect for me. Ting has a modified low impact version that I can handle. I am doing the 2 Week Shred challenge followed by an ab workout. I’ve done my first two days and although my body is screaming at me, it’s got to be good for me!
How are you handling COVID-19 uncertainties?
Here are common symptoms of anxiety from the Mayo Clinic
- Feeling nervous, restless or tense.
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom.
- Having an increased heart rate.
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired.
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry.