I don’t think you’d be human if you didn’t have some level of anxiety about COVID-19. It’s like a current that pulls away at your psyche each time you leave the house. One second you’re happy to be out and about in the world. The next second, you’re staring at everyone’s masks and gloves, wondering how this is real life in 2020. You might even start to panic and question how safe you are, or if leaving the house was such a good idea after all.
On top of worrying about health, millions of people are facing uncertainty in their lives like never before. Some have lost job security, others are dealing with unemployment, and young adults are moving back home in the masses. Ashley, a recent Northeastern graduate, says, “Being a new grad is tough right now because we’re entering a completely different world with a questionable job market… It’s really hard to think about the future and not feel anxious.”
Let’s face it, almost everyone is having some sort of uncomfortable life shift during this bizarre time. With these open-ended question marks about the future comes loads of anxiety. Know that whatever your situation is, you’re not alone if you feel excessive worry about the state of the world. Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to calm your nerves in order to move forward in the “new normal.”
Put your boundaries in place
First and foremost, it’s crucial to set your boundaries. Consult with your roommates, family, co-workers, partner (or whoever you’re actually seeing in-person right now). Stick to a plan about how you’re all going to minimize potential contact with COVID-19. Since each state’s cases are ebbing and flowing, and everyone seems to be on a different page about how to act, you can minimize unwanted social surprises by adhering to a game plan.
For example, are you comfortable seeing friends outside at a distance? Would you sit in the same room as other folks with masks on? Perhaps you have someone with a compromised immune system in your life and you need to take extra measures of caution. Whatever the case is, let the people around you know your specific boundaries from the get-go. Discuss your expectations about wearing a mask and social distancing ahead of time, before you even see anyone. It’s perfectly acceptable to insist you don’t want to see anyone who won’t follow the rules you’ve put in place. That way, you don’t show up to your family BBQ and have to dodge hugs from your Uncle Joe, who refuses to wear a mask and thinks the virus isn’t real (insert eye-roll here).
Keep track of your news intake
Yes, it’s important to stay informed about the current stage of the virus, but not at the expense of your mental health. If you find yourself checking the news multiple times per day and obsessing over virus numbers or re-reading catastrophic predictions about the economy, take a break and stop. If you really want to stay up to date, pick a reliable news source (you know, the kind that reports on actual scientific findings) and check in every once and awhile. You could also refocus your news intake on events in your local area, instead of the entire country or world. It might still feel scary, but you’ll consume a smaller scale of information, which can make things less overwhelming.
If you’re feeling totally over the top anxious, consider taking a complete news hiatus. Use your common sense by wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and washing your hands. It’s great to stay on top of how to stay safe and where the virus is most active, but there’s no harm in removing yourself from the media hamster wheel in order to feel better mentally.
It’s easy to spiral into full-blown panic when pieces of your life are up in the air. One common symptom of anxiety is having racing thoughts. It feels like a tangled ball of yarn is speed-rolling around your brain, knocking over every rational thought in its path. Practicing mindfulness is a great strategy for calming the mind and combating unwanted thoughts.
Jen Johnson, expert mindfulness coach and counselor, explains, “Mindfulness is awareness of the present moment with curiosity and kindness.” She adds, “When we practice mindfulness, we’re making an effort to withdraw the judging mind that wants to classify our experience as good/bad, right/wrong, pleasant/unpleasant and simply allow what is happening to be as it is without judging it, meeting it with kindness and interest.”
Practicing mindfulness won’t automatically solve your problems, but it can alter your mindset. In fact, Johnson says research shows that meditation decreases default mode network activity in the brain (AKA regretting the past, worrying about the future, worrying about what other people think of us, etc). Johnson explains, “Our thoughts create anxiety. If we’re practicing noticing our present moment experience with non-judgment and with kindness and curiosity, this allows us to objectively observe our experience and respond to it rather than react to it.” Approaching your thoughts this way can increase inner peace and reduce stress and anxiety.
Write down your anxious thoughts
Anxiety can feel like a tornado ripping around in your stomach, even when you’re not exactly sure what you’re anxious about. If you’ve noticed an uptick of anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic, but can’t put your finger on all of the reasons why, try scheduling a 10-minute “worry session” each day. Seriously, take some time to worry your ass off. Write down every single thing that pops up into your brain and hash it out into one big mess on paper.
This works as a two-fold. One, you can see the pattern of your thoughts. Are you thinking about the same thing over and over again in different ways, or do you genuinely have a million things on your mind? Two, after seeing your worries on paper you’ll gain some perspective. Are your thoughts irrational or rational? What actions can you immediately take to minimize your stress? What can you let go of and worry about at another time? This practice gives you the opportunity to literally view your thinking patterns and come up with a game plan to deal with it. Having a worry session often clears your mind and allows you to move on with your day in peace.
Use this time to your advantage
Although we’re in the midst of scary times, a lot of people have more time on their hands now more than ever before. If you have extra time in your day, think of it as an opportunity to improve yourself. I’m not saying you should jam-pack every day and pressure yourself to be perfect. Seriously, it’s unrealistic to emerge from the pandemic as a fluent French-speaking, gourmet cook with six-pack abs and a Marie Kondo-style closet.
Instead, I urge you to use this time to focus on things that serve you. For instance, maybe you were unhappy with your job before the pandemic hit. Although the job market is tough, this could be the perfect time to network and make connections while some folks have extra time in their schedules. Or, maybe you’re someone who transitioned into working from home every day. Instead of having sad lunch breaks at a freezing air-conditioned desk, you could get out and go for a walk each day during lunch.
Carve out some time to do a few things you wouldn’t normally be able to do. Take care of your mental health by letting go of things in your old pre-pandemic routine that no longer serve you. Being true to yourself and focusing on the things you enjoy can do wonders for your mental health.
Consider getting help
If you’re having constant, nagging thoughts about the pandemic and feel like you can’t settle into everyday life no matter how hard you try, consider speaking with a doctor or therapist. Millions of people are feeling the same way right now and there’s absolutely no shame in reaching out for help. In fact, it’s probably the kindest thing you can do for yourself if you’re struggling. No one should have to live in a state of constant fear, panic and suffering. Speaking with a professional and/or considering medication can greatly improve your quality of life.
Johnson recommends seeking help when anxiety becomes excessive and interferes with your daily functioning. She also advises that you don’t have to wait until anxiety is severe to seek help. She adds, “Chronic anxiety and stress can create uncomfortable physical, mental, and behavior symptoms even if it hasn’t progressed to an anxiety disorder. If the anxiety feels concerning or bothersome to you, reach out for help.”
While none of us are sure how long the pandemic will go on, as a society we have to attempt to move on with life as best (and safely) as we can. Even though pandemic life will always have levels of uncertainty, there’s plenty you can do to live your best life and enjoy little moments. Johnson says practicing mindful self-care, including “getting an adequate amount of sleep, drinking enough clean water, eating well and getting some exercise” are great ways to combat anxiety specific to the pandemic.
As horrible as this whole situation is, there’s definitely something to be learned from it. If you can walk away from this with more knowledge about how to take care of yourself and deal with feelings of uncertainty, that might just be a blessing in disguise.