Over the span of a few months, “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” have become household terms, and around the world lives are largely revolving around this virus.
It has taken many lives, and medical experts and governments worldwide are working diligently to reduce the virus’ health and economic consequences.
Naturally, many of us are experiencing anxiety about ways this virus will impact our families and communities. While much remains unknown about the short- and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can work to manage anxiety in the midst of this time.
Anxiety is an innate, evolutionary important human response to threats in the environment. Feelings of unease and uncertainty motivate us to take action in order to protect ourselves and our loved ones. However, the amount of anxiety we have should be related to the degree of the threat. Unfortunately, our communal anxiety regarding COVID-19 is high in part because, given its novelty, we do not know how to judge the severity of this threat.
So what can we do to manage anxiety while medical experts continue to work tirelessly to share knowledge and develop medical interventions to support our health? We can focus on the facts and shift our focus onto other areas of our lives where we do have some control.
To be blunt, it seems that many people unconsciously (or even consciously) fear that exposure to COVID-19 means imminent death. Luckily, for most people, this is in irrational fear that can and should be challenged in order to manage personal and collective anxiety. It is in fact a desire to protect those who are most at risk from the virus (older adults and those with underlying health conditions) that has led national, state and local governments to severely limit commerce and overall personal mobility.
This response has been swift and extreme, inciting fear and anxiety while intending to protect us. It is, however, important to remember that these steps are designed not to prevent the spread of this virus, but to slow its spread in order to protect our most vulnerable citizens. This distinction is critical.
As is true with the flu, medical experts expect that many Americans will contract COVID-19, and the vast majority of those will have mild cases and recover fairly easily.
Unfortunately, this virus is quite severe and will be deadly for some people. The primary goal of social distancing and shelter-in-place policies is to maximize our medical system’s ability to respond to severe cases of the illness.
Because many people (especially children) will be carriers of the illness without showing symptoms, by limiting social contact, we can slow the spread of the virus. This allows those who need specialized and intensive medical care (e.g., ventilators) to access it, significantly improving health outcomes and limiting mortality rates.
Our communal anxiety around COVID-19 has been helpful in encouraging us all to take important steps to reduce risk, including handwashing, deep and frequent cleaning in public spaces, and near universal social distancing. Beyond these steps, we unfortunately have very little control over the spread of COVID-19.
However, there are many steps we can take to reduce fear and to improve our own well-being and that of our communities:
=Consider limiting exposure to news media and utilizing only fact-based news sources (e.g., scientifically based websites such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization).
Reading our news instead of watching it on TV can allow us to gain important facts without heightening our fear and emotion. Continual exposure to others’ anxiety and events outside of our control can perpetuate cycles of anxiety.
=Find control where you can. This may be something as simple as completing a chore or project around your home, balancing your checkbook, or following a new recipe exactly, thereby offering some balance to the loss of control we feel regarding COVID-19.
=For those away from work or home with caretaking responsibilities, find ways to create structure and meaning in your lives. While our lives are out of balance/rhythm right now as we practice social distancing, we can take steps to maintain some normalcy. Which rituals can you continue during these uncertain times?
=Find and express gratitude. If we allow it to be, fear can be front and center in our lives during difficult times. We must intentionally look beyond our fear and uncertainty to the more positive areas of life that exist along with the sobering realities of this virus.
Research suggests spending just a few minutes daily focused on gratitude has long-term positive effects on mood and well-being.
=Connect socially. Humans are social beings and we need to interact with one another to maintain mood and well-being. There are many internet-based ways to maintain connection during these times when we are not able to be physically present with our friends, colleagues and family.
=Help someone. It is normal and understandable to be worried and concerned right now. Instead of trying to eliminate anxiety, how can you help or connect with someone else, in large or small ways? Science suggests this can improve everyone’s well-being.
=Pray, meditate, connect with your spirituality. Turning to God, prayer, meditation or whatever other spiritual practices are personally useful is important during difficult times.
We need to have hope, and these spiritual practices help us see and connect with something bigger than us, thereby improving well-being.
If you find that you are having difficulty managing anxiety and other emotions right now, mental health providers are working to create virtual “telehealth” options to support patients. Contact your local mental health providers or reach out to me directly if you need professional support.
Dr. Lauren Welter is a licensed psychologist. She lives on a livestock and crop farm near Monticello, Iowa, with her husband Dan and their children Isaac, Clara and Joshua. Contact her through her website, https://www.prairiehomewellness.com/.