Anxious about coronavirus? You're not alone.
Is it any wonder that anxiety levels are on the rise?
Mental Health America has been monitoring clinical anxiety screening at its website and found a 19% increase from the first half of February to the last half. There was another 12% increase in the first 11 days of March.
"As the number of cases of COVID-19 increase, so does the associated anxiety,” said Paul Gionfriddo, president of the nonprofit that promotes mental health.
“For the general public, the mental health effects of COVID-19 are as important to address as are the physical health effects,” he added. “And for the one in five who already have mental health conditions – or the one in two who are at risk of developing them – we need to take personal, professional, and policy measures now to address them.”
The number of people screening at a “severe anxiety” level was just over 45%.
"MHA does not offer the only anxiety screenings in the country, so our numbers are probably significantly underestimating the actual impact of the virus on severe anxiety,” Gionfriddo said. “The key point is this: the mental health impacts of the coronavirus are real, significant, growing, must be addressed, and will persist and do harm if they are ignored.”
But there are things that can be done about it.
This, too, shall pass
Greenville psychologist Martha Durham says it’s normal to feel anxious and down at a time like this. But people need to remember that the situation isn’t going to last forever.
“If you look at China now, their factories are starting back up and they were the worst hit,” she told The Greenville News.
“Hopefully, we are catching it sooner,” she said. “I think we probably have a better health care system. And we will get back on our feet.”
So it’s helpful to focus on the positive, such as the school district providing food to children who have to stay home and how quickly online learning is getting up and running, she said.
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For every story about a man price gouging thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer, she said, there are 100 stories about people doing good things, like helping care for children or companies vowing not to turn off the utilities during the emergency.
“In some ways, this is a really fascinating and beautiful time too,” she said. “Seeing people working together and doing something.”
But the uncertainty has led to a lot of anxiety that can easily become impairing, said Dr. Neda Gould, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Stick to the facts
Signs can be different for different people, she said. Some may have increased worry, sleeplessness, headaches or other physical manifestations, she said. Others might buy excessive quantities of hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes to reduce the anxiety by increasing their sense of control over the situation.
To help, people can use any form of relaxation or mindfulness to help turn off the stress response, such as pausing and taking a few deep breaths or listening to some guided meditation before bed or in the early morning. It can help people to think more clearly and effectively, and return to the present moment, she said.
“When the mind wanders to stressful thoughts during the day, practice noting the thoughts and returning to the activity you are engaged in,” she said. “By doing this, you are not consumed by worries the entire day.”
Gould also recommends people avoid checking the news constantly. Instead, limit it to once or twice a day with a trusted news source.
“Remember that the mind can fixate on catastrophic outcomes and we need to bring it back to the facts of a situation, as opposed to the stories we get caught in about what could happen,” she said. “Preparation is different than worry in that preparation is productive.”
Durham adds that it’s also a good idea to focus on the point of social distancing.
“We’re protecting our vulnerable citizens,” she said. “We want to keep them healthy.”
And people don’t have to stay in their homes, she said. They can take a walk, enjoy the flowers, go to the park, so long as they keep a safe distance from others, take precautions and carry hand sanitizer, she said.
“You can’t be expected to stay indoors and see nobody,” she said. “You’ve just got to be smart about how you do it.”
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Another tip - try to limit your exposure to social media, she said.
For those who need therapy, she said, telemedicine can be a great alternative.
“I don’t want people to come into the office if they’re afraid,” she said. “And for people who have compromised immune systems, this is ideal.”
The fact that this pandemic is unprecedented makes it even more frightening, Durham said. Even so, the chances are quite low that you’re going to get a severe case, she said.
“This is going to be a tough time for people. But I truly believe this is short term, even if it goes through the summer,” she said. “Humans are pretty resilient. We will figure out ways to make it more palatable.”
Here are some tips from MHA for dealing with the anxiety and the forced isolation:
- Use your smart phone to stay connected to family and friends. Shift from texting to voice or video calling to feel more connected.
- Keep comfortable. Do the things you already enjoy doing at home; just do more of them.
- Practice stress relief whenever you feel anxiety building – do some deep breathing, exercise, read, dig in the garden, eat some ice cream – whatever works for you.
- Don’t do anything you’d consider to be unhealthy for you, such as excess drinking – that will just increase your anxiety afterwards.
- Keep looking forward. Make some plans for six months down the road.
Liv Osby is the health writer at The Greenville News. She can be reached at email@example.com, 864-298-4422 or @livgnews.