COVID-19 May Be Harder for People with Anxiety

Dealing with COVID-19 is difficult for most people, but often even more so for people who have struggled with anxiety in the past. If you have a history of OCD, health-related concerns, panic attacks, trauma, or worry, you may be experiencing an increase in anxiety or even a “relapse” of older symptoms.

Understanding the impacts of COVID can be helpful in making the situation more manageable and reducing self-judgment about recent spikes in anxiety.

COVID adds new stressors

First and foremost, the current situation introduces new significant stressors in your life. You may have lost your income, have a family member who is sick, or have to balance working from home with parenting . These are going to add a lot of new stress!

COVID increases uncertainty

The situation with COVID is marked by extreme uncertainty, and uncertainty is the primary fuel for anxiety! Anxiety is part of our adaptive biological systems meant to anticipate danger and keep us safe. Therefore, our brains are naturally wired to seek predictability and certainty. In the current situation, there is added uncertainty about our future. How long will we have to isolate? Will I get sick? Will I have steady income? What will happen to my loved ones? Because none of us has ever lived through a similar situation in the past, our minds have nothing to compare this to. Even though we may be quite safe in any given moment, this uncertainty fuels our anxiety as our brains desperately try to “fill in the blanks” and warn us of possible dangers. While the current crisis does call for some degree of caution, it can be easy for our brains to overdo it and produce unhelpful levels of fear, instability, and panic.

This is a lot of change all at once!

For most people, adapting to COVID meant a lot of change in a short period of time. Most of us have suddenly found ourselves in a new set of routines and are living a completely different lifestyle than just a few weeks ago. We have stopped doing the things that typically help us feel “normal “such as going to work, spending time with friends, exercising at the gym, shopping at our favorite stores, or eating out. As a therapist, I regularly hear people say that they “don’t like change.” This makes sense since change is associated with potential danger and our brains are built to avoid danger. Adjusting to such drastic change can be anxiety-provoking and draining as we struggle to establish new routines and schedules.

COVID isolates us and makes us feel out of control

It may seem that there is little that we can do to help the situation, and as a result we may struggle to contain nervous energy that wants us to do something! Confined at home, we may also struggle with a loss of freedom to go places and see people. Staying home typically means less distractions as well, which may give you more time to be alone with your thoughts. For people with anxiety, this can be very challenging!

Other ways that COVID makes it hard

There is a lot of new information about coronavirus to sift through. There may be changes in family dynamics that lead to more conflict, as we are likely to feel “on edge.” And, if you are a person who worries about illness and health, then COVID-19 may feed directly into one of your worst fears. Keep in mind that even in this challenging situation, there are still things within our control.

Remind yourself that it’s OK to not have it all together

First off, recognize that there is no “right” way to feel about this situation and everyone goes through their own process. Comparing yourself to others is only likely to make you feel worse. Instead, try self-compassion. Give yourself permission to struggle, to be a mess, to not have it all together. Things are hard enough- try not to add to it by adding unnecessary layers of pressure, self-judgment, and criticism. For some help, try listening to a guided meditation on self-compassion.

Prioritize the basics

Choose a daily schedule and keep to it. The mind is comforted by routine. Make sure you are taking care of your body with food, hydration, and rest. Reach out and connect with others and ask for support if you feel you need it. There is no shame in asking for help, and by asking someone for help you are giving them something in return – the good feeling that they will get by taking care of you. Take some time to reflect on coping skills or strategies that you’ve used successfully in the past. Commit to using them now. You may need to dust off the meditation pillow or that old workbook from therapy, but remember that you will have muscle memory for any skills that you have previously learned! (See here for more coping tips).

Reframe the situation

It is easy to feel that we are doing nothing. But remember, your effort in social distancing is an extremely significant contribution to the greater good. Don’t listen to your anxiety when it tells you that you need to do more. Thank it for trying to protect you and instead focus on what matters most to you now: your loved ones, your health, your work, etc. Try a values exercise if you need help clarifying what is most important to you right now.

And remember, don’t beat yourself up

These are hard times and don’t beat yourself up for having challenges with it. It is normal to feel anxious. Give yourself some credit for doing the best that you can.

Author: Brian Pilecki, Ph.D.

Dr. Brian Pilecki is a licensed clinical psychologist who earned his Ph.D. from Fordham University and completed his postdoctoral training at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. He specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders, trauma and PTSD, and matters related to the use of psychedelics. Additionally, Dr. Pilecki has experience in mindfulness and meditation and practices primarily from an orientation based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). He is also engaged in scientific research on psychedelics.

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