The whole world is talking about the coronavirus. It seems impossible to avoid being reminded of it, whether by those around us or online (news, social media, etc). The idea of a new disease, especially one that has the potential to take lives, is enough to put fear in anyone, and can be particularly difficult for individuals who are already dealing with anxiety.
It’s completely understandable to be concerned about your health and the health of loved ones. It is important to be concerned, since concern leads to making choices to protect ourselves and those we care about. But too much concern can lead to an increase in anxiety and panic, which can be counterproductive to staying healthy and keeping those around us healthy. So, what exactly is anxiety, and how does it affect us when faced with coronavirus?
Anxiety is a biologically-based response to danger that helps a species stay alive. It alerts us to threats and helps us resolve them - usually by “fight or flight”. We can stay and fight or run away from danger to keep ourselves safe. Over time, however, anxiety reactions began to happen to things that are either 1) less threatening, such as being stuck in traffic or having to do a presentation or 2) less easily resolved by fight or flight, such as more complex challenges that we cannot run from or kick our way through. When we have an anxiety response in such instances, we are likely to find ourselves stuck without a resolution. It can make us feel that the world is a dangerous place and/or that we do not have the resources needed to handle life. Naturally, as those beliefs form, we feel terrible mentally and emotionally.
Importantly, there is also a physical factor to experiencing anxiety. Our body, in order to preserve energy for fight/flight, sends a signal (by a substance called cortisol) to shut down major functions like digestion/metabolism and our immune system. Over time, as anxiety continues, this cortisol keeps circulating in the system and these massively important functions remain shut down or working at a percentage of their normal potential. Obviously, when our anxiety is about a disease, this is particularly concerning! By worrying about getting sick, we could be reducing our body’s ability to fight off sickness!
So, what can we do? Here are some things to try:
- Mindfulness and relaxation - yoga, deep breathing, guided meditations, etc. can be extremely helpful in combating anxiety and lower our stress response. Deep breathing and mindful exercises send signals to shut down the fight/flight response and calm our bodies. There is evidence that these techniques change our heart rate and our brain responses! Biofeedback/neurofeedback are particularly helpful in actually showing you how mindfulness practice change your physiology.
- Social support - friends, family, support groups, etc. can help us feel united and strong in times of stress and panic. If you feel anxious about coronavirus, you are certainly not the only one! Speak up, and you will see that you are not alone. Do keep a 6 foot social distance from anyone who you speak to that may be at risk of having the coronavirus.
- Pay close attention to diet and exercise - In times of health concerns, it is particularly important to nourish our bodies with healthier foods, vitamins/supplements, and regular exercise. As a two-for-one, good eating and regular exercise ward off both anxiety and disease!
- Counseling - talk to a counselor/therapist about your anxiety, your fears, etc. This can be short term, during the coronavirus panic, or you can choose to continue on with it. A therapist can help you talk through your anxiety, bring awareness to it, and bring solutions and coping skills to the forefront.
- Medication - for severe anxiety (e.g. panic attacks) that counseling alone cannot banish, medication may be an option.
Find what works for you and make your mental and physical health a priority in a productive way. Finding a way to be calm in times of fear and uncertainty is important, especially when we are taking care of others (clients, children, ill family members, etc). We’ve referenced the phrase “put your oxygen mask on first” several times before, and it’s an important one to repeat. If you are compromising your own health with fear and anxiety, you cannot fully be there for those you wish to support.
Let this time of panic become a time of growth and health instead. Yes, a new disease that doesn’t yet have a vaccination or a cure and can take lives may feel terrifying. But, this is not the first disease nor the last disease of its kind. Scientists and doctors are working overtime on identifying ways to help keep us safe. Let’s play our part in keeping ourselves calm and keeping ourselves healthy.