Dealing with Anxiety during COVID-19
Dr. Aaron Banister - April 03, 2020
Uncertainty is the fuel for anxiety and in the midst of the current pandemic there is an abundance of uncertainty!  Whenever uncertainty exists our brain has a wonderful way of filling in the blanks.  And many times those blanks are filled in with negative predictions and anticipated difficulties.  This tendency leads to increased feelings of anxiety.  Anxiety is a fear based emotion that can disrupt normal functioning.  It is important to understand what anxiety is and how to cope with it in a healthy manner.  Anxiety can feel like an overwhelming fear, experiencing racing thoughts, having difficulty relaxing, feeling nervous, experiencing feelings of dread, irritability, difficulty with concentration and attention, and difficulty sleeping.  Physiological symptoms of anxiety can include muscle tension, feelings of tingling or numbness in your extremities, feeling like it is hard to swallow (choking), headaches (from muscle tension), increased heart rate, fatigue, and shortness of breath. 
A natural tendency, whenever one feels stressed or anxious, is to breathe shallowly or hold your breath.   This can then trigger your body’s fight or flight (or freeze) mechanism which can lead to feelings of panic.  A panic attack can include pounding heart, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, feelings of choking, chest pain or discomfort, nausea, upset stomach, feeling dizzy/lightheaded, fearing a loss of control or “going crazy”, fear of dying, numbness and tingling sensations, and chills or hot flushes.  Often after a panic attack the individual fears that they will experience another panic attack.  This fear keeps them in an increased hyper-alert state that can increase their feelings of anxiety.  It is important whenever someone is feeling intense anxiety that they focus on …

Deep Breathing

Whenever you do not breathe deeply, or hold your breath, it deprives your body of the oxygen that your brain needs.  This can quickly “sound the alarm” (engage your sympathetic nervous system) and trigger intense anxiety and potentially symptoms of panic. 
Whenever you breathe deeply you are really doing your body a big favor!  Deep breathing (diaphragmatic breathing) engages your parasympathetic nervous system and sends a signal to your brain that you are safe and that it is okay to relax.  This begins to relax your body and reduce the intensity of the symptoms of anxiety and panic.  Breathe deeply by inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.  Some people have increased success with this when they incorporate it with prayer or meditation.  I encourage you to practice this throughout the day regularly even when you are not feeling intense anxiety.   
There are also a couple of things to keep aware of during this difficult time:

Identifying Productive Concern vs. Unproductive Worry

It would be unreasonable to believe that we should never feel concerned or worried.  But there is a big difference between the two!  When I am concerned, that can be productive.  It allows me to make appropriate preparations, listen to informed recommendations, and identify what I can control versus what I cannot control.  Worry is unproductive and uncomfortable.  It is typically driven by the “what ifs” from the voice of anxiety.  It causes increased feelings of discomfort and intense feelings of fear.  Worry is not productive in any way and often leaves us feeling physically fatigued and emotionally depleted.    Whenever you recognize that you are crossing the line from concern to worry then mentally pause, take a good deep breath, pray/meditate, and challenge the negative thoughts that you have been chasing.  Never forget, you are capable and stronger than you might think. 
Remember, anxiety isn’t like a light switch that is either “on or off.”  It is more like a volume knob.  Even your favorite song (Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”) is uncomfortable when it is too loud.  It is important to identify the level at which anxiety becomes “too loud” and begins to cause difficulty.  It is important to practice ways to “turn down the volume” of anxiety to a manageable level.    Whenever we treat anxiety like a light switch we will have an increased negative reaction to any feelings of anxiety because we will interpret our anxiousness as bad.  When we view it as a “volume knob” we will then understand that we have some influence over the intensity and duration of our anxiety.  We may not be able to completely turn it off, but we can turn it down to a more manageable level.    

Stay Present Focused

A universal truth is that we can only occupy one place in time, and that place is NOW.  Whenever I predict even one second in the future it is nothing more than my fantasy of what I think the future will be.  It is not based in reality, because I do not have all of the information needed to clearly predict the future!  It is good to prepare and be wise, but whenever I begin to predict the unknown future I will tend to have an increase in feelings of anxiety and dread.  I can then act like something that is possible is probable.  Our daily goal can be to take each moment as it comes, not borrowing trouble from tomorrow.      

Expressing Gratitude

One great way of turning down the volume knob of anxiety is by beginning a daily practice of gratitude.  Gratitude is simply identifying and expressing thankfulness for different things in your life.  Gratitude gives you something to focus your mind on that is positive.  When you commit to a daily practice of gratitude you begin to train your brain to more quickly identify the good things around you.  I encourage you to set aside time each day to write down at least three things that you are grateful for.

You can use the above information to make your own plan to reduce anxiety:

  • Breathe
  • Identify what you can control versus what you cannot control
  • Be present focused-don’t predict the future, take care of now
  • Practice gratitude
Dr. Aaron W. Banister
Counseling Psychologist
Schneck Medical Center
Additionally, click here to access helpful information from the CDC on managing stress and anxiety.