If you have been feeling worried about illness recently, you are definitely not alone. Even people who don’t normally experience health anxieties are affected by news regarding the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Ships quarantined, cities locked down, schools closing, hospitals overwhelmed. Much of what we hear is the absolute worst of the news, and for now at least the rest is largely unknown.
An endless wave of bad news can certainly increase depression, while facing an unknown can increase anxiety, so the situation is a recipe for increased stress on everyone’s mental health. In addition, we are carrying the weight of experiencing others’ stress and worries as well. It’s not only a nationwide mental health stressor, but a worldwide one.
It’s common for PTSD symptoms and anxiety symptoms generally to spike during times of crisis, especially for those who are in vulnerable marginalized groups. This is true whether or not you have a trauma history that is specifically related to the crisis itself. So you may be experiencing more symptoms such as insomnia, panic attacks, melancholy or dread, fibromyalgia, hives, flashbacks, migraines, dissociation, suicidality, agorophobia, or obsessions and compulsions, to name a few of the common ones.
What to do first:
As in any times of crisis, there are four basic elements of self-stabilizing, beginning with the body.
First of all, you need sleep! If you are experiencing insomnia, address this first. Sleeplessness makes everything else hard to manage, both physically and mentally. You may use self-help methods or you may seek professional support from a therapist if your insomnia is entrenched.
Another aspect of stabilization is to make sure you are eating: get enough healthy fuel. If stress has activated disordered eating such as restricting or bingeing, don’t ignore it. Address it directly.
Exercise: If you already have a reasonable exercise program, do your best to maintain it. If you have begun to isolate, try just taking a 10-minute walk daily. Even mild exercise will help both your body and mind feel better and more able to handle whatever stresses are arising. Also, being outdoors and seeing other people can remind you that human life is continuing and you are still part of a mutually supportive, helpful society.
Which leads to another important aspect, that of social support. It’s important to connect with supportive others, in whatever format you can. Even if you must work from home, you can text or email or talk on the phone with someone. Make sure to do this daily!
Maintain Your Routine and Stay Connected
In the broader sense, counteract a sense of helpless disaster by focusing your perception on the many thousands of highly capable and caring people in every possible area of life–health care workers, emergency workers, researchers, spiritual leaders, parents, neighbors, friends–who are planning and preparing to support, save, and take care of all of us as best they can. Maybe you are one of those people!
Remember that your fellow humans feel a sense of care and responsibility towards you, just as you feel towards them. We protect and help one another to get through. And as Mr. Rogers famously described, “looking for the helpers” is a good way to reassure yourself in a crisis. Becoming one of the helpers yourself–even in a small, neighborly way–can help you to feel less powerless.
When you have stabilized your primary needs as best you can
The next step is to do your emotional self-care. First of all, accept your emotions. It is reasonable to feel scared or angry or any other emotion in a crisis. So have acceptance for whatever those feelings may be, and find ways to comfort yourself.
The trick, however, is to not buy into the cognitions that anxiety or depression may generate. Recognize that if your thoughts are becoming dreadful, it’s likely you are experiencing catastrophization or similar cognitive distortions. One way to reframe this for yourself is to recognize what you have control over (sensible interventions and planning) and what you do not have control over (worldwide events).
If it is something that you do have control over (sensible hygiene, having medications and basic supplies available, planning alternate child care / work locations, rescheduling travel), then implement those things. But worrying will not help you with the implementation.
If it is something you do not have control over, then again–worrying will not help. You may feel afraid and it is worth talking through the fear with someone. But you may need to let go of a sense that you must control the situation in order to survive it. Much of this is out of your control and anyone else’s! Seek solidly data-driven, practical sources of information rather than sensationalized or over-minimized sources. This will help you know what to actually prepare for.
The worry protocol includes not only contagion, but another common anxiety: financial fears. For some, this is regarding recent stock market drops, and for others, simply the ability to pay rent each month when society is disrupted or they could become ill. Again, the worry protocol holds: sensibly plan and implement the parts that you can. The parts that are out of your control may happen or they may not. If they do happen, you and others will do your best to recover and repair as soon as you are able. You may or you may not incur losses, but you will deal with those if they occur.
So…in order to keep yourself emotionally stable:
Take good care of yourself, accept your emotions, manage your cognitions, make practical plans that are based on reality, relinquish control of the uncontrollable, maintain your routines as best you can, and find some way to become a helper. If you are struggling with these issues, consider seeing a therapist to help you sort through them!