Psychologists’ say anxiety is normal, to a point, and offer suggestions for battling the strain of isolation and uncertainty
Social distancing and self-isolation amid uncertain situations can put tremendous strain on anyone’s sanity. Psychologists say it’s important to recognize that anxiety in times like these is normal. But in excess, it can be bad for you and for others.
“Too much anxiety creates emotion contagion and spreads panic,” says UC San Francisco psychologist Elissa Epel, PhD. “That’s not helpful.”
So how to mentally cope with coronavirus? One key, among many suggestions below, is to avoid overexposure to the news.
“It’s tempting to check for updates, but checking several times a day can keep us in an escalated state of anxiety,” Epel says. “We then easily transmit that type of exaggerated anxiety to our children and those around us.” Particularly unhelpful, she said, are “catastrophic thoughts and predictions” found in social media.
Spinning the positives
While recognizing that people in big cities and areas of the worst outbreaks might have limited options for dealing with the crisis, some people are finding opportunities.
“I have been using this as an opportunity to be productive around the house — organizing, deep cleaning, etc.,” says Anna Lewandowski of Phoenix. “I still work from home but I am saving about an hour and a half by not commuting, so I use that time to my advantage.”
Ashlie Brewer offers a totally different suggestion, for those who might have the opportunity: “Go camping.”
Psychologists and health experts applaud such approaches, and they offer other practical ways to help us all endure and maybe even thrive a little during these challenging times.
“Thinking thoughts like I can do this and we can get through this, helps ward off the anxious spiraling of feeling like you can’t tolerate uncertainty,” says Mary Alvord, PhD, a psychologist practicing in Maryland who focuses on resilience. “If you find your thoughts spinning to catastrophic thinking or gloomy thoughts, then calm your body.”
Resilience is about taking action on the things in life you can control, and not being consumed by the things that are out of your control, Alvord says in an email. She suggests taking walks and really paying attention to nature, the color of the sky, the feel of the air.
Breathe deep, exercise and eat well
Alvord also recommends taking a few deep breaths, literally. In fact, deep breathing has been shown to relieve stress and even have outright physical health benefits, according to the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School and multiple studies. Try this: Sit or lie down and relax and breathe in slowly and fully through your nose, then exhale fully through your mouth.
- Fill your belly first, feeling it expand, then fill the chest, then feel the air raise your collar bones.
- Count the seconds as you go. Hold the breath for a few counts, then exhale completely, pushing the last of the air out using your stomach muscles.
- Count a few beats, and repeat.
We normally breathe 12 to 16 times per minute. With deep breathing, aim to get that down to six to 10 breaths per minute and do it for as long as you wish. After 10 to 15 minutes, don’t be surprised if you nod off.
If you don’t have time for all that, and you’re feeling stressed, experts recommend at least slowing down long enough to take three deep breaths.
It’s also more important than ever in stressful times to get physical activity, whether that’s exercise at home, a brisk walk, or even gardening or housework. Moderate physical activity has been shown by many studies to be good for the mind as well as the body. (Check out these suggestions for getting your motivation back during the pandemic.)
Nutrition experts also wish to remind everyone that now is not the time to gobble donuts in lieu of real food. The World Food Programme has some suggestions for focusing your eating patterns on healthy foods right now, along with the importance of staying hydrated.
Physical isolation vs. social isolation
Jagdish Khubchandani, a health science professor at Ball State University, offers several suggestions for turning isolation into positive experiences:
- Clear the clutter and donate unused items.
- Clean the house, which offers much-needed physical activity and is good for hygiene.
- Maintain routine work hours, activities and your sleep-wake cycle. (Don’t oversleep!)
- Reassess your work skills and consider an online course.
- Focus on improving diet, exercise, and maybe even your personality.
- Explore new activities or revive old ones: music, dance, biking, yoga? Learn a new language?
- Look through your contacts list for friends, family and neighbors who might need help.
- Cook for yourself and others in need.
Most of all: “Do not isolate yourself totally,” Khubchandani says. “Don’t be afraid, don’t panic, and do keep communicating with others.” Just keep a safe distance whenever possible.
In fact, we could all benefit by thinking of sheltering and place and the 6-foot guideline as “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing.”
“Maintaining social networks can foster a sense of normality and provide valuable outlets for sharing feelings and relieving stress,” advises the American Psychological Association. “You can maintain these connections without increasing your risk of getting the virus by talking on the phone, texting or chatting with people on social media platforms. Feel free to share useful information you find on government websites with your friends and family. It will help them deal with their own anxiety.”
Psychologists also point out that anxiety is normal, and it can have a protective effect.
“The good news about the widespread anxiety is that it is fueling big changes fast — many people in affected areas are being very careful to limit exposure. Anxiety fosters prevention and safeguarding behaviors. Prevention reduces anxiety,” says Epel, the UC San Francisco psychologist. “However, when threats are uncertain, such as the current coronavirus situation, our anxious minds can easily overestimate the actual threat and underestimate our ability to cope with it.”
People who already tended toward anxiety conditions are particularly vulnerable in uncertain times, Epel says. “While some anxiety helps us cope, extreme anxiety can become coronavirus panic. When we are in a panic state, we suffer, we stress out our children, we are more likely to make mistakes and engage in irrational decisions and behavior.” [How to Talk to Kids About Coronavirus]