Right now, most everyone is experiencing some level of uncertainty, fear and anxiety, as we have never experienced a situation like COVID-19 before. Information and recommendations are changing daily. The unknown and waiting can be worse than knowing. It would be normal to have fears about your health, your ability to care for yourself, family or loved ones, or the future. Life will return to normal, but the uncertainty of when and what that means can add to your fear and anxiety. The important thing to know is that whatever you are feeling is OK. It does not make you weak; it makes you human. The more we embrace our humanity, the better equipped we are to cope. The key is not how you feel but what you choose to do with those feelings.
Know how you respond to stress.
The more you know about how you tend to react to stressful situations, the more you can contain and control your response. Some examples of a typical stress reaction include:
- difficulty concentrating or racing thoughts
- muscle tension
- poor sleep
- changes in eating habits
- isolation (not including social distancing)
- feeling numb or experiencing irrational fears
- anxiety/panic attacks
Take control and take action.
While we cannot control what happens around us, we can control ourselves. This ability, and our ability to take action, is soothing in itself. Here is one active way to contain anxiety.
- When you recognize you are dwelling on an anxiety-provoking thought, stop.
- Tell yourself that your anxiety is legitimate but that giving it attention is not helping you. You want to deprive it to contain it.
- Actively change your thought. Know your emotions will take longer to catch up. Replace your thought with something positive, relaxing or neutral.
- When you feel calmer, think about what you can do to keep control of your anxiety. If you’re worried about catching COVID-19, remind yourself that you know the best ways to protect yourself and that you are doing them (frequent handwashing, social distancing, etc.).
Use your existing coping skills and learn new ones.
We use many different ways to distract from or cope with stress. There is not a right or wrong way, as long as it is effective and healthy. If your go-to strategies are no longer working or are not available, try some new methods that interest you. Here are some suggestions.
- Get a good night’s sleep. (An app to try is the free Relax Melodies: Sleep Sounds App.)
- (Two great apps are Calm and Headspace.)
- Slow your breathing. (Try the Breathe2Relax App.)
- Similar to meditation, try progressive muscle relaxation.
- Spend time with your pets; animals are wonderfully therapeutic.
- Learn something new, like a language, hobby or craft.
- Distract yourself with interesting, uplifting activities.
- Socialize with technology; laugh together with friends and family.
Also, stay informed but limit your media time. Pick your news and information sources wisely. You want facts, not sensationalism. Choose activities that will lift your mood, not increase fear, anxiety or sadness. And be flexible. The situation is fluid, so we must be fluid as well.
Dr. Julia Kim is a Clinical Psychologist at Hospital for Special Surgery. Dr. Kim’s focus is to develop an Integrative Care Program, designed to incorporate psychological services to a multidisciplinary team. She works closely with physicians and surgeons to optimize the best possible medical outcome.