Linda Hubbard, L.M.F.T.
Psychiatry & Psychology
Speaking of HealthBehind the mask: Managing high-functioning anxietyJuly 11, 2023
Speaking of HealthOverwhelmed by anxiety?May 16, 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought shock, confusion, disbelief and an array of opinions on what people were up against. At first, Americans saw other countries struggling to keep up with the increasing numbers of ill people and the medical systems not having the resources to help enough people at the same time. While the U.S. hoped this would not be its story, COVID-19 has become an intense battle here, as well.
Impact on anxiety levels
For many people, anxiety is high as a result of the pandemic. This is not all bad. Anxiety and fear are natural protectors of people's lives. These responses trigger the fight-or-flight response that motivates people to act in the primitive sense — usually to run or fight. This response has kept humans alive for generations despite many dangers in this world.
However, an unknown or not easily understood danger can increase people's anxiety. These reasons lead many people to seek understanding, and develop a plan of safety and action. Examples can be found in multiple disciplines or groups, including scientists, hospitals, schools, government, transportation, retail stores, families, older adults and others.
Populations at risk
Worldwide pandemics affect almost all people, whether they feel they have a personal risk for contracting COVID-19 or not.
While the pandemic may lead to anxiety in many people, there are some populations who have a higher risk of being affected:
- Those with a history of anxiety
People who struggled with anxiety prior to this situation may feel especially overwhelmed during the pandemic.
- Older or immunocompromised people
Older adults, or those who have underlying medical issues or weakened immune systems, are aware of their personal increased risk should they contract COVID-19. This may cause them heightened anxiety or feelings of helplessness. Also, their loved ones may fear for them and feel helpless to protect them, and feel heightened anxiety.
Children may watch the news and hear the concern in a parent's or other adult's voice, and begin to feel the world is scary and out of control. They may not be able to explain their fears or anxious thoughts.
- Health care workers
Health care workers or other people who have a lot of contact with people who are ill may experience high concern and anxiety about their risk due to potential exposure. They also know that they could expose their families to the virus when they return home.
Symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety affects a person's thoughts and actions, and presents physical symptoms. When in physical danger, anxiety is designed to help people focus on the threat so they know where the danger is coming from and how to fight or escape it.
Anxiety quickly builds up energy so we can fight or run from danger, but it may cause uncomfortable physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, inability to concentrate, shakiness, sweating and difficulty swallowing. These symptoms may feel horrible, but they are not dangerous in the short term.
In the current situation, anxiety can cause rumination, a sense of impending doom, helplessness and overfocusing on the news, which can provoke more anxiety. Some people may wish to hide, avoid learning about any dangers or act like ostriches and put their heads in the sand. Feeling tense, irritable and impatient can be a part of anxiety. Other actions related to anxiety include pacing, spacing out and feeling like a spinning wheel without getting tasks done.
Build up resiliency
Public health experts indicate that COVID-19 pandemic response will last months ― not days.
Here are nine tips to build up your personal resilience during this time:
1. Gather information.
Knowledge of the enemy, fear and issue can reduce anxiety. Gather accurate, factual information from trusted sources to better understand the situation, and help with problem-solving and a greater sense of control. Avoid sensationalized, dramatic information about the pandemic.
2. Establish a new routine.
Many daily routines have changed due to COVID-19. Routine and structure can be helpful and calming. Create a new normal with some practical and enjoyable tasks to become more resilient to chaos and change. Mindfully create a daily and weekly flow of events, such as starting your morning with a relaxing cup of tea or coffee, or breakfast. Other ideas include making a list of projects that you have wanted to accomplish, reading inspirational writings and journaling to record your thoughts, hopes, emotions and concerns.
3. Stay connected virtually.
Reaching out to loved ones is important and can be done through phone calls, texting, emailing and video calls. Consider hosting virtual meetings with your loved ones. Human connection can lower stress and anxiety levels, and build camaraderie. Learn more about how to maintain human connection during social distancing.
4. Practice self-care habits.
Take a few moments to care for yourself each day, such as soaking in a long soothing bath, listening to calming or upbeat music, getting plenty of sleep, and eating healthy food. These habits can help whether you are working inside or outside the home.
5. Look for the good.
Acknowledge and accept that the good and bad are often adjacent in the same moment in life. A person can be sad about one thing but be aware that there's goodness and happiness in the same moment about another thing. Intentionally look for those good things. Whatever thoughts we feed grow so it can help to purposefully think hopeful, realistic and problem-solving thoughts. Look at the beauty amid the difficulties in life.
Regular exercise and movement helps release built-up fight-or-flight energy. Using bigger muscle movements can help release this energy so you feel calmer. Also, exercise releases endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals in the brain. Try jumping jacks, pushups, walking, running, chopping wood, swimming or lifting weights. Even cleaning the house or moving heavy boxes are good big-muscle exercises. Stretching and yoga also are helpful in reducing stress.
Meditation, mindfulness and breathing exercises are good ways to release stress. Now is a good time to learn these approaches and incorporate them into daily habits.
COVID-19 enables people to reflect on what is truly important and express gratitude. When life returns to normal, do you want to go back to how things were before or will you reprioritize some things in your life?
9. Reach out.
Everyone is in this together, and that is a comfort. You are not alone. If you feel alone, don't be silent. Instead, reach out to a friend or health care professional. Many people are feeling the same way. If you communicate your hopes and fears, and listen to others, it divides the burden and increases the connection. This decreases the sense of isolation and anxiety.