Whether it’s the hordes of people stockpiling supplies at the grocery store or the constant stream of updates on our TVs or social media, it’s nearly impossible to escape the hysteria of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
While our government continues to get a handle on the pandemic and daily life has been dramatically disrupted for nearly all Americans, it’s no wonder that the general public is experiencing an increased level of stress.
For the nearly 40 million American adults – about 18% of the population – who suffer from anxiety disorders such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Panic Disorder, COVID-19 can create yet another mental health threat. All the questions and unknowns surrounding this worldwide epidemic can lead to excessive worry, irrational behavior, and a deep sense of dread.
You might think…
Did I wash my hands long enough?
Should I stay at home?
Will I get infected?
Is this crowd of people carrying the virus?
Are my children safe?
Will I be able to financially support myself if I can’t go into work?
The uncertainties and paranoia surrounding the coronavirus can mount and be crippling for those that suffer from an anxiety disorder.
“We are seeing increasing levels of anxiety [in the U.S.] over a relatively short period of time,” said Vaile Wright, director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association. “What we know from psychological science is, it’s the uncertainty that drives anxiety.”
“This is definitely a trigger for a lot of patients,” states Krystal Lewis, a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, who treats children as well as adults. “For anyone who might have OCD or specific concerns about getting sick, once you start seeing those signs pop up even more, and the Purell is everywhere, it can be really tough.”
Says author and writer, Lux Alptraum, “As someone who lives with OCD, I’m used to having my anxious thoughts take over — and, thanks to the work I’ve done in therapy, I’m usually pretty good at flagging thoughts as anxiety and OCD rather than a legitimate concern. But as the coronavirus outbreak has put the world on high alert, many of the thoughts I’d ordinarily dismiss as a product of my anxiety have started to seem like rational worry, and I find it harder to push back.”
Finding Calm Within the Coronavirus Storm
In addition to adopting common-sense prevention measures such as diligent handwashing and social distancing, it is also important for those suffering from anxiety disorders to pay close attention to their own mental and psychological well-being.
Here are a few tips to support you or a loved one who may have an anxiety disorder during this uncertain and unsettling time:
- Monitor your news intake.
It’s great to be informed but try and limit your fact-finding, as excessive news watching can cause increased worry and panic. The World Health Organization suggests, “Avoid watching, reading or listening to news that causes you to feel anxious or distressed; seek information mainly to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones.”
Seek updates and information at specific times during the day (i.e. morning, midday and dinnertime), and allow yourself just enough time to get the latest news.
“We have to regulate and make choices about what we are exposing ourselves to,” says therapist Jenn Brandel, noting that managing anxiety around outbreaks requires us to focus on facts rather than emotions.
- Maintain structure and your normal routine.
While the world around you may be uncertain, those suffering from anxiety disorders should keep order in their lives where possible.
Dr. Matthew W. Specht, Ph.D., a nationally-recognized clinical psychologist says, “People tend to underestimate the benefits of structure on mental health. Response to COVID-19 will have a significant impact on one’s routine and will increase stress and anxiety. We must look for ways to structure ourselves in the absence of external structure.”
Ideas include getting showered and dressed as usual even if working from home and sticking to daily routines such as exercise and household chores.
“Despite all the outside challenges and complexities, the key here is to get into your routine and stick with it,” continued Dr. Specht.
- Focus on your well-being.
Particularly during times of stress, it’s imperative to pay close attention to your emotions and needs. Be mindful of your overall health and wellness. Be consistent with a fitness and exercise regiment, get a good night’s sleep, and eat a healthy, balanced diet. Even if you’re stuck at home, you can still maintain an active lifestyle. From Bootcamp to Yoga, YouTube is a great resource for at-home workouts to keep you moving. Staying active and healthy will do wonders for your body, mind, and soul during this uncertain time.
The WHO suggests, “Take care of your basic needs and employ helpful coping strategies – ensure rest and respite during work or between shifts, eat sufficient and healthy food, engage in physical activity, and stay in contact with family and friends. Avoid using unhelpful coping strategies such as tobacco, alcohol or other drugs. In the long term, these can worsen your mental and physical well being.”
- Maintain social ties despite “social distancing.”
Continue to rely on your close family and friends for support and comfort. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, remind yourself that you are not alone.
According to the WHO, “Stay connected and maintain your social networks. Even in situations of isolation, try as much as possible to keep your personal daily routines. If health authorities have recommended limiting your physical social contact to contain the outbreak, you can stay connected via email, social media, video conference, and telephone.”
While social distancing is suggested, modern technology makes it easy to stay connected via video or group chats and phone calls. You can also ask your therapist if he/she is available for sessions remotely.
- Set a basic safety routine and stick to it.
Diligent hand-washing as an essential way to combat coronavirus could potentially be a nightmare for someone with OCD. Experts suggest washing your hands for 20 seconds at a time as often as needed, but anything more far more than 20 seconds at a time, is moving out of disease prevention and into compulsion territory. In fact, too much hand-washing is not helpful and could lead to infection if your skin becomes raw.
Bioethicist Kelly Hills says, “If you are washing your hands so much that they are raw or chafed, you are washing your hands too much,” says Hills. She points out that washing your hands is not about preventing infection to seep in through your skin, it’s about removing pathogens before they can be passed onto points of entry like your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Honor your feelings and fears.
Acknowledge the discomfort and feelings of stress that COVID-19 may have brought to your daily life. Once you’ve recognized these emotions and understand that the root cause surrounds the hysteria and unknowns posed by this disease, then start taking action toward alleviating your fears.
Tap into coping strategies and techniques you have used in the past to manage times of stress, as they can benefit you now. While the scenarios may differ, your trusted tools are the same.
“Your emotions, including anxiety, are there for a reason,” Wright said. “They communicate things to ourselves and motivate us to action.”
- Find the positives.
Global pandemic or not, it’s important to embrace a positive outlook. Take the time to connect with nature. Recharge your batteries. Support your neighbors and community however you can. In finding the silver lining and a more upbeat perspective, you will find the calm in what feels like chaos.
Says Dr. Specht, “Find and focus on the positives – time to connect/reconnect with immediate family. Time to reflect and truly appreciate the little things that we so often miss in our typically very hectic lives. True adversity brings out our humanity and reminds us that we are all in this together, and we are in fact, one world, and we are connected. As John Lennon said, ‘All we need is love, love…love is all we need.”
We Are With You!
We are living in undeniably unsettling times, and we at The American Brain Society understand the added stress COVID-19 has likely brought to your life. Whether or not you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety disorders, know that you are not alone.
We share your worry.
We see your concern.
We understand your uncertainty.
With patience, time, and through supporting one another, we will all get through this!
If you need additional support we encourage you to reach out to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI or visit https://www.nami.org/ for local resources.