By Bobbi Wegner, PsyD, and a supervising clinical psychologist at Boston Behavioral Medicine and lecturer in Human Development and Psychology at Harvard Graduate School of Education
Pandemic panic is real.
Worried about bills and rent. Concerned about aging parents. Overwhelmed by at-home work and homeschooled kids. Scared about the health of you and your loved ones. These are all rational and expected emotions in response to COVID-19.
Still, many healthy people are finding themselves unable to focus on the other necessary—and joyful—aspects of life. Like work, connection with partners, and moments of fun.
Of course, some anxiety is protective. It encourages us to take safety measures—like social distancing. But too much is overwhelming. It interferes with our daily lives.
It would be wonderful if there were a simple solution to take the worry away. But some of that worry keeps us safe. The goal, for now, is to manage and compartmentalize the fear so we can keep living life. COVID-19 is dangerous to our bodies, but it doesn't have to take our minds too.
Let go of the fear
Start by learning how to recognize panic and anxiety. Early signs might include:
- Disrupted sleep.
- Increased or decreased appetite.
- Constant thoughts about COVID-19.
- Over-focusing on the health of you and your loved ones.
- Increased and persistent feelings of worry.
Ask yourself: 1. Can you still get work done? (At least when not homeschooling your kids!) 2. Have you laughed recently? 3. Have you had moments of connection with people close to you? 4. Can you think and read about things not connected to COVID-19?
If the answer is no, you might be experiencing more anxiety than you realize.
First, understand how fear and anxiety work. It's an uncomfortable sensation—tightening of the chest, shallow breathing, increased heart rate—that is often triggered by an outside event. But the real culprit is our thoughts, conscious or unconscious.
Control how you feel
The way we view an event like this pandemic determines how we feel about the event.
The cycle works like this: A thought triggers a feeling (worry), and the feeling shapes a behavioral response (what the person does in response to the feeling). This response often reinforces the initial thought. (If you want to read more, check out this worksheet.)
For example, a thought ("I haven't felt well in weeks. I must have COVID-19") triggers a feeling (intense worry and panic), which shapes a behavior (i.e., work avoidance). Many of my patients talk about "placebo corona"—any physical discomfort may be undiagnosed COVID-19.
This behavior often reinforces the thought: "I must have COVID-19 because I cannot even work." It could be true. But the probability of having undiagnosed COVID-19 for many weeks is unlikely.
A healthy replacement thought is: "It could be COVID-19. Or it could be a million other things like stress, a cold, or allergies. I generally get them now." These are much more likely scenarios. And, hopefully, less worrisome.
How to manage your thoughts
- Identify the emotions and when they tend to trigger (date/time/activity). Look for themes.
- Rate the probability of that thought coming true (0-100). More often than not, these thoughts are high in fear but low in actually happening.
- Replace the current thought with a new thought.
- "I am worried. Life is hard now. But I can focus on enjoying cooking dinner with my kids, listening to music, having a glass of wine. I am going to stay in this moment for now. And enjoy it. And that is OK."
- "I wish this didn't happen. But at least I see more people taking care of each other and realizing the importance of connection. And while it is really, really hard now. And it is upending many people's lives. I hope that there is something we can learn that will help us in the future.
- If you are avoiding certain activities because of panic, try to not allow yourself to do that. Panic and anxiety spread when you avoid doing things.
- Two useful online tools are Moodnotes and CBT Thought Diary.
- Lastly, it is important to notice the thoughts, how they make you feel, and play with alternatives—don't judge and beat yourself up.
The best way to fight panic
Sometimes, a dose of acceptance is the antidote to worry and fear. Acceptance of the new but temporary reality (and the anxiety that goes along with it) might be the needed tool.
Ultimately, feeling OK is a balance of optimism, realism, and validation of the emotional experience.
- Stay informed, but don't overdo the news. Choose a couple of trusted news sources. Check them two to three times a day, max. The Center for Disease Control and The World Health Organization are reliable sources for COVID-19-related information.
- Exercise regularly. Whether at home or possibly outside. Even in places under lockdown, going for a walk or run is still allowed. You just can't be near (less than 6 feet) anyone except those you live with.
- Decrease baseline anxiety with meditation. HeartBreath is a great app.
- Control what you can—like handwashing, practicing social distance, turning off the news, responding to others with kindness.
- Let go of what you can't. The number of toilet paper rolls left at the store. Whether others are following social distancing rules. Predicting when this will be over.
The scientific understanding of COVID-19 as well as guidelines for its prevention and treatment are constantly changing. There may be new information since this article was published. It’s important to check with sources like the CDC for the most up-to-date information.