Feeling anxious during the pandemic? You’re not alone. COVID-19 and its repercussions are severely stressing our mental health. A Johns Hopkins survey found a three-fold increase in the percentage of U.S. adults who reported symptoms of psychological distress; and a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 45% of U.S. adults say the pandemic is affecting their mental health.
More than 80% of people surveyed in one study were preoccupied with thoughts of COVID-19 and many experienced difficulty sleeping and paranoia about acquiring COVID-19. Anxiety related to COVID-19 includes danger/contamination, fear of economic turmoil, compulsive checking and reassurance-seeking, and traumatic stress symptoms. Many of us are looking for simple, practical ways to soothe and manage their anxiety during this challenging time.
Here are a few tools to help manage anxiety during this pandemic:
1.) Limit your news and social media intake
Ever watch the COVID-19 news right before bed and wonder why you have trouble sleeping? Check your phone all day for COVID-19 updates and notice you’re in a fog? Research suggests that mental health problems are positively associated with frequent social media engagement during the COVID-19 outbreak. Other research has found that study participants who were shown fourteen-minute negative TV news bulletins showed increases in anxiety, sadness, and the tendency to catastrophize a personal worry. Take control of your news and social media intake by 1) limiting it to smaller doses, 2) balancing it with positive news, or 3) reading a book instead (30 minutes of book reading can actually calm feelings of psychological distress and lower blood pressure and heart rate).
2.) Feel your feelings
Mental health clinicians acknowledge that anxiety often covers/protects deeper feelings of vulnerability, sadness, or hurt. “Feeling your feelings” is one of the best ways to decrease anxiety. Letting yourself feel sad about loss of normalcy, social interactions, and your “old life” can decrease your anxiety. Nurture yourself while you’re grieving. Talk to friends and family about your feelings, journal, walk in nature, rest, watch feel-good movies, nap, and treat yourself with extra compassion. Give yourself permission to cry. A 2014 study suggests that crying may have a direct, self-soothing effect and may activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you relax. Another great way to “feel feelings” is by attending counseling, much of which is now done over video (“telehealth”). Counseling has the added bonus of helping you understand how your thought patterns impact your mood.
3.) Lighten up
Whether introducing kids to a show you used to watch when you were a kid (e.g. Popeye or The Flintstones), fashioning a homemade mask out of a huge kitchen towel, having a throw-socks-in-the-laundry-basket tournament, or watching a slapstick movie, laughter is a powerful way to relieve the heavy burden of the pandemic. Run through the sprinkler or climb a tree with kids, play “anarchy scrabble” where you make fake words, listen to lighthearted songs, tell jokes, read Uncle Scrooge comic books, send funny cards to friends, and let yourself have fun. Research suggests that humor can significantly reduce anxiety and reduce psychological distress, just as much as exercise can. Studies have shown that laughter decreases cortisol, increases dopamine, and reverses the stress response.
4.) Walk, even for 10 minutes
Research suggests that walking has a positive effect on mood, even more than high-intensity interval training or continuous aerobic exercise. Even 10 minutes of brisk walking can improve your mood state.
5.) Focus your attention on the positive
Research suggests that while your mood impacts where you put your attention; where you put your attention also affects your mood. By purposely drawing your attention to positives, you can improve and calm your emotional state. Write down three things you’re looking forward to in the week, put a positive or “goal word” on your fridge to focus on, “catch your kids being good” five times a day, watch or read “good news,” or pause at the end of the day to note a few good things that happened.
6.) Maintain a routine
Research suggests that rituals or routines effectively calm stress caused by unpredictability and uncontrollability (both hallmarks of the pandemic). Routines act as a stability anchor in times of stress. Ask yourself which routine (e.g. morning routine, dinnertime routine, nighttime routine, exercise routine, gardening routine, or social routine) could be strengthened to reduce your anxiety and instill a sense of calm and well-being.