We live in anxious times, and we did even before any of us had ever heard of the new coronavirus or COVID-19.
Anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, are the most common mental illnesses in the United States. In fact, they affect 40 million adults 18 years and older, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Plus, anxiety is often a symptom of other conditions like depression or autism.
“The recently identified viral illness has been causing anxiety and panic around the world,” says Jonathan Stevens, MD, MPH, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry and chief of outpatient services at Menninger Clinic in Houston.
“Videos showing hospitals from China and Italy, where people with face masks, gloves, and full-body protective suits attend to the ill and dying, resemble scenes from horror films,” he says. “And given that nearly every news program is reporting on the viral outbreak, we are being exposed to these types of anxiety-provoking scenes repeatedly.”
In addition to our 24-hour news cycle, businesses are closing their doors and mandatory quarantines are a high possibility. With so much uncertainty, many people are experiencing heightened anxiety. This surreal reality is intense for everyone, and those who are predisposed to anxiety disorders may feel especially vulnerable.
If you have an anxiety disorder, you may be wondering what you can do to find a sense of normalcy and control during this stressful situation. “If COVID-19 is elevating your anxiety, create a plan,” advises Dr. Stevens. “Do not panic.”
Try these seven ways to manage your anxiety and find some calm during this stressful time.
1. Stockpile Medicine
Many people with mental health conditions take medicine as part of their treatment. In a time of potential quarantine, Dr. Stevens suggests requesting a larger supply, like a 90-day refill, instead of the usual 30-day option.
2. Try Virtual Therapy
Another popular part of treatment is in-office therapy. As part of your plan, request virtual therapy. This is a type of telemedicine that can occur through video calls, text messages, or phone calls.
3. Limit Your News Diet
“The goal is to live our lives, while also doing what is necessary to reduce the likelihood of being seriously harmed and harming others,” says Dr. Stevens. “Do not increase your anxiety by constantly watching the news about the spread of the virus around the globe.”
He suggests focusing on your own location, like your state or even just your city, and using reliable sources of information, such as the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health. Try setting limits on your screen time and turning off notifications.
4. Prioritize Structure and Routines
Do this “even more than usual, and particularly as daily life looks less and less familiar. The world may feel chaotic and unpredictable, but your home doesn't have to,” says Dr. Stevens. “Structure and routines are your friends.”
Try making a daily schedule and hanging it up for everyone in your home to see. This will help limit changes in energy levels, work or study habits, and sleeping or eating patterns, which are all related to heightened anxiety.
5. Be Good to Yourself
“Remember that you are resilient. Do not be immobilized by panic,” advises Dr. Stevens. Taking care of yourself improves your mindset and helps prepare you to face challenges. Practice self-care by:
- Deep breathing or meditating
- Eating healthy, well-balanced meals
- Exercising regularly
- Getting plenty of sleep
- Avoiding alcohol and drugs
All are important to keep your mental health balanced.
6. Practice Grounding Techniques
Staying present in your body is very important for people with anxiety, especially when thoughts begin to spiral. Remain grounded through simple breathing techniques to slow the heart rate and reduce the fight-or-flight response. Box breathing is one option. Inhale for four seconds, pause for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and pause again for four seconds.
Guided meditation is also helpful in interrupting spiraling thoughts. Choose a calm recording to listen to. Sit or lie down in a comfortable, relaxing space, and focus on the recording.
7. Consider Short-Term Treatment Options
If you find it difficult to contain your anxiety or you’re experiencing panic attacks or other anxiety-related relapses triggered by coronavirus, consider speaking with your clinician to discuss symptoms and possible short-term treatments.
To help your clinician make a personalized treatment plan for you, ask about pharmacogenetic (PGx) testing.
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