If the outbreak of COVID-19 has been stressful for you during this past week, you’re not alone. Human beings like stability, and life has been changing dramatically for many of us over the past week. We are all trying to adjust to the new normal, and the anxiety can feel overwhelming, particularly for people who are at higher risk.
Lately, you may find yourself feeling more irritable, or having trouble sleeping. It’s easy to feel a loss of control, and to allow worries about the future to dominate your thoughts. But learning to cope with your stress during this difficult time is critical for your mental and physical health, and allows you to be a resource for others.
7 Ways to Tackle COVID-19 Fears
1. Take control of things within your power.
The sheer scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with government actions to prevent the spread, have reduced our individual control over our day-to-day lives. Most of us feel that we have no control. In this environment, it is very important to take control over the things you can control.
How? Identify the things you can do to protect yourself and others, such as:
- stay at home when possible
- practice thorough hand washing
- use hand sanitizer as often as possible
- eat healthy foods
- exercise if possible
- limit your exposure to news media
The last item may seem trivial, but is an important step to reduce fears and negative thoughts that often arise as a result of media hype.
2. Accept the new norm.
Uncertainty is one of the biggest triggers for anxiety. Accepting the changes in our lives is another way we can reduce our stress during this challenging time. Whether we like it or not, our world has changed. Starting to accept that this is going to last for a while, and figuring out how to adapt our daily activities, also gives us a greater sense of control.
3. Move your body.
As a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, I can’t emphasize enough how important moving your body is to your mental as well as physical health. When you get stuck in a negative thought cycle, when anxiety or depression arise, move your body.
This doesn't require vigorous cardio routines, lifting weights, or other robust exercises, although they are beneficial if you can manage them. Moving your body can be as easy as walking to the kitchen and washing a couple of dishes, putting your arms above your head, doing a yoga pose or two if you can, or just walking around the room.
There are also many great resources online for all levels of ability, including seniors. Physical activity acts as an interruption to the dialog going on in your brain, and is a free and easy action you can control.
4. Take advantage of nature.
As long as you can maintain social distancing, step outside your home and take a few breaths outside. Take a walk in the park, or around the block, and look at the trees, flowers, even the sky.
A short neighborhood walk gives you a dose of Vitamin D if the sun is shining, and it can shift your mood. Take a few minutes to be present and experience the feeling of being outdoors, and see if you can connect with nature in some way.
5. Practice self-calming.
With the turbulent news around us, finding ways to achieve some kind of inner calm is one of the biggest gifts we can give ourselves. There are many applications available on cell phones and iPads that can help us create a regular practice of mindfulness meditation. Some of the best are Calm, Ten Percent Happier, and Breethe, but there are many more. Find one that appeals to you.
If you prefer to be app-free, try a five-minute mindful breathing exercise in the mornings and evenings — take a couple of deep, settling breaths, and fix your attention on the part of your body where you feel your breath entering and leaving your body. Concentrate on this area, and every time you become aware that your mind has drifted off into thought, gently bring the focus back onto the breath, without judgment. You will likely find that your mind drifts every few seconds; this is normal, and will improve even with just 5 minutes twice a day.
This exercise will help your ability to control negative thoughts. You can also find, and join, an online meditation group for social support. There is considerable research to support the calming effects of a regular meditation practice.
There are many other ways you can self-calm: hot baths, listening to your favorite music, hugging your pet, spend time on a hobby, or even finding a new one. The point is to stay in the present. When our minds are focused on what’s happening to us right now — other than speculating about what might happen — we become more grounded, and anxiety lessens.
The future is a fantasy — why create a negative fantasy? If you have to think about the future, visualize best case scenarios, your ideal life, or other positive, motivating futures.
6. Achieve connections with others.
If possible, connect with family and friends. If you are isolated, and don’t easily socialize, look for an online forum in a topic you’re interested in, and join in. Research shows us that humans are relational beings; connection to others normalizes our lives and can bring us great joy.
Be creative! If we can’t physically have a meal together, or watch a movie, then we can do it via FaceTime or Skype! Create a new way to have fun with friends and family. Seeing each other, even online, is another way to improve our mood and reduce anxiety.
7. Find joy!
These are really difficult times for everyone; if you already have chronic physical or mental illness, you may be more affected than others emotionally. Counter this by looking for ways to find joy!
The idea of joy is often misunderstood in today’s world. It can be confused with acquisition of material goods, expensive vacations, new cars. Real joy can be a fleeting, but profound, experience found by listening to music that moves you, hearing a loved one’s voice, stepping outside the house for a moment and taking a deep breath, watching animals or birds, looking at beautiful paintings, and many more.
We are blessed to have so much of the world available to us online in today’s world. Difficult as it is, our present situation is a chance to take advantage of that online world, and maybe find a new way to find a moment of joy.
Yes, the world has changed dramatically around us. It is natural to feel anxiety — acknowledge your fears and anxieties! Remember, this situation is a first for everyone. And you can help yourself not only survive but thrive in it by taking some of the steps above!
About Maureen Glynn
Maureen Glynn is Senior Director of Research and Compliance Programs for Care Innovations. In this role, mental health is her main focus. Two of her areas of research are driving behavior change in healthcare, and treatment models for patients suffering from physical and mental comorbidities.
Maureen joined Care Innovations at the company’s formation in January, 2011. Prior to that, she worked for twenty-eight years at Intel Corporation, where she held various technical and management positions, including Director of Engineering for Digital Health, Director of Engineering for IT, Director of Strategy & Technology, and Director of Risk Management.
Maureen is completing her dissertation in fulfillment of the requirements for a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Her dissertation addresses the unique treatment challenges for adult victims of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), with physiological and psychological comorbidities. Maureen is also a Marriage and Family Therapist associate, and loves to spend time with family, pets, and hiking and running the trails.
Maureen received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Cambridge, England, and also has a Masters in Counseling Psychology from National University.