How to manage anxiety during COVID-19

Woman walking down a street wearing a face mask.

Pandemics are understandably a stressful time for many people. Especially, when so many of our support networks have been taken away. In this article, we will discuss how to manage your relationship with anxiety during the crisis.

Why is COVID-19 so frightening?

Anxiety is a predisposition to look for threats. Often, this can manifest in misidentifying situations, such as social events, or specific phobias, as something to worry about.

In this case, however, there is a genuine risk to our health. It is a lot harder to tell ourselves that "it's all in our head" when people are dying, albeit in fairly low numbers globally so far.

There is much we do not know about the virus. How deadly is it? How long will it be here for? Will it reduce over summer? How it will affect our jobs? Our families? How long will we have to maintain social distancing and lockdowns?

These unknowns make for an ideal breading ground for anxiety, which thrives on "what might happen" questions about the future.

Worse still, with a lockdown in place, and many of us finding ourselves furloughed, without a job, or with work drying up, we have ample time to sit around and ruminate on the situation.

Be kind to yourself

These are stressful times for everybody. Even people who do not have a predisposition to worry are finding themselves struggling.

Therefore, if you are experiencing anxiety, understand that it is not because you are fundamentally broken. You are someone who finds themselves in a highly stressful situation that we have never been in before, and that some increased level of anxiety is only natural.

It is understandable and normal to feel this way given the current situation. If you find that you experience low mood, tired or unproductive, it is okay to feel that way.

Moderate your news intake

Many people have suggested we should "read the news less". However, this is unlikely to work without an understanding of anxiety and why it triggers us to read the news.

If we believe that information helps keep us safe, we are going to experience a strong compulsion to read as much about coronavirus as we can. It doesn't matter if we also notice is making us miserable: our deep survival instincts tell us to consume the information to keep ourselves safe.

Instead, let's make a deal with our anxiety. We can and will read the news to stay informed. However, we will only do this at certain intervals, for example, once on a morning and once in an evening, and we will only do so to find relevant information to what we should be doing to stay safe.

This helps quell that feeling that we should be staying informed, while giving ourselves clear rules about not clicking on clickbait headlines.

Stay healthy

Many people on social media have embraced a shaming campaign in which the idea of going outside is taboo. We should indeed avoid unnecessary travel, and avoid other people. However, it is important to try and leave the house at least once per day and engage in some exercise.

How much is the perfect amount? The evidence suggests 20-45 minutes of moderate intensity exercise is a good guidance. This depends on your current level of fitness. If you typically do much more than this, you can continue your current routine.

Live with purpose

In Albert Ellis's ABC model (activating event, belief, consequences), it is not the event that triggers our anxiety, but the beliefs we hold. For example, being asked to give a presentation at work is not inherently dangerous. It is our beliefs that "I will mess it up and get fired" that causes us to worry.

The key here is that while we have no control over the events currently unfolding, we do some a degree of control over how we react to them.

If we choose to respond to the crisis in a positive way: for example, using the time to do some personal development, to volunteer as an NHS Responder, or simply to take a leading role in ensuring our family is safe and have all the supplies we need, we will avoid the trap of falling into a despondent response by default.

Of course, you cannot think your way into a happier mood. If we could, we would just stop worrying whenever we wanted. The secret here is it change or behaviour. If we take steps to add purpose into our lives, our mood will follow.

Reach out for help if you need it

If you are really struggling, help is available.

Phone and online chat services like Samaritan's and 7 Cups remain in operation. The NHS are also offering a Check-in and Chat service that will allow people who are at risk of loneliness to connect with a network of volunteers.

If you need further support, many counselling practices are continuing to offer therapy via video calls and telephone appointments.