5 Ways to Deal with Anxiety about Coronavirus

I have grown up with this needless, gnawing desire to constantly be prepared. I want double if not triple of everything and a pantry stocked with non-perishables at all times. A backup for the backup. I want a Plan A through Z. I have emergency bags in all the vehicles, and a pre-packed suitcase in the closet for my children. I’ve been like this as long as I can remember.

As a child, I was obsessed with knowing the exact route of the fire drill at school and can clearly remember myself repeating the instructions from my teachers over and over for days after the event, practically vibrating with anxiety about it. Would I forget it when the time came? I was terrified I’d be hurt, or cause someone else to be injured if I didn’t do it exactly right as quickly as possible. The repetition and constant fretting made me feel like I’d be more prepared when that day finally came (because based on how often we learned Stop Drop and Roll, I assumed fire avoidance was going to be a much more frequent part of my life).

So to say I am well ahead of all the panic going on right now about COVID-19 is an understatement. I’ve never been one to hide discussing my own anxiety, but right now I’m feeling at the top of my game. All that catastrophizing is paying off! My contingency plans and worrying are coming in handy! I’ve been preparing for a pandemic my entire life! While everyone else is swiping the shelves clean of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, I’ve got cupboards downstairs stocked to the brim and I’m feeling cool as a cucumber in this world-wide panic, probably because my Anxiety Gremlin is chortling in self satisfaction.

You all will be just considering what to do next week, while I’ve had my Mad-Max style Zombie apocalypse outfit picked out since I was 10.

All of this is in jest of course, because truthfully, it would be quite a bad thing if I started thinking this way and inadvertently gave more power to my fearful assumptions. As someone with a history of anxiety, I’ve spent most of my adult life now learning to cope with those racing, sometimes illogical thoughts in my head. I know how to identify an extreme thought and turn it into a balanced one instead, and I’m constantly working to challenge those intrusive whispers that sometimes crop up, trying to convince me the worst things will happen. I make sure my nervous thoughts don’t influence my actions (for very long at least), because it can be a slippery slope once they do.

Much of our anxiety is based on these sorts of thoughts – and although we might not be able to stop them from first appearing, we can for sure stop them from staying.

And unfortunately, that may be what’s happening in our society right now. Panic among the masses is causing us to have some slightly illogical thoughts that are influencing our behaviours; hence why we are run out of toilet paper during a time where the virus affects our lungs, not our… you know whats. You should be more concerned about sneezing and coughing than your bowels. Although since I’ve had kids, I won’t lie that sneezing is a bit of a gamble on whether or not my bladder control is up to snuff – so maybe people are on to something here. Check out the folks who are hoarding the Charmin. They may all be middle aged mothers who could use a referral to a physical therapist for pelvic floor muscle rehab.

All joking aside – Coronavirus is a very real and present concern for all of us, and those who struggle with anxiety such as I did in my younger years are feeling the impact even more strongly. There is a lot of misinformation, fear and panic circling. Our news feeds on social media are filled with graphics and news stories, personal accounts and minute-by-minute changing suggestions for how to cope and it can get a little overwhelming to say the least.

In fact, many of us who suffer from panic or anxiety disorders may see this as proof that all our negative and cyclic thinking is correct, that we should be worried! Finally – my worst case scenario brain is being proven right!

So to stop that from happening, here are my top five suggestions for managing your anxiety related to Coronavirus.

Social Distancing – Not Social Disconnecting

You’ve probably been hearing this term a lot recently. Social Distancing. No, it’s not related to the new show Love is Blind (although SNL already did a skit on that, so I’m late to the joke party). In reality, it’s the concept that by reducing our physical movement in the greater social realm, we limit the possibility of the spread of certain viruses purely because we are encountering less people. In the virology game, it’s actually EASIER to hit a moving target. The more people we bump into, the higher the probability we will pass on our germs or they will pass theirs onto us.

Consider it like the first step in an escalating protocol. Social distancing is the lowest preventative measure, where we try to avoid larger group gatherings, or unnecessary interactions – it’s best to skip the play date for now and keep a few meters between you and your neighbour. Isolation would be the middle step, where you stay home and have your groceries delivered at the door step because you may be showing signs of the illness, but not feeling bad enough to really need any treatment or further testing – you’ll likely stay away from others for 14 days to allow time for the virus to run its course. Being placed in quarantine is the top tier where you are entirely separated from the general public in hospital due to active confirmation of the virus and perhaps because you need more support to get through the symptoms.

Right now, most of Ontario is working hard to encourage social distancing as a way to curb the spread of Coronavirus, so we don’t overwhelm our health care system with a tidal wave of infected individuals all at once. This amazing simulation explains the process better than I ever could. The idea of ‘Flattening the Curve’ is all about keeping a safe personal bubble around ourselves and not traveling more than necessary.

But this does not mean you need to become a hermit.

You still need to stay connected to the world around you, to family and friends, and to do more than just binge watch every episode of The Mandelorian. Disconnecting entirely will not help you, and it will likely increase your risk of anxiety and depression – the more isolated we become, the less motivated we are and the more likely we are left alone with our negative thoughts. Being with others and being active in our communities and outdoors is an important step to maintaining good mental health. You can still go for walks out in the sunshine. You can still work in your yard. You can still even manage to head out to pick up your medication, or grab take-out for the night.

Should you go to a concert in the city? Probably not.

Should you host a big dinner party? I wouldn’t suggest it.

Should you go on that jet-setting vacation to Italy? Definitely no.

But can you cook a meal and play board games with your family? Absolutely.

Can you pick up the phone and call your friends, your relatives, your grandparents? Of course!

Can you play with your dog in the backyard and go for a walk in the woods? Yes!

Social distancing does not mean an entire disconnect from the outside world. If you can do it with a few meters of healthy space between you and someone else, that’s fine! Fresh air is good! Sunshine is even better! The people in your own household are not your enemy. Practice basic logical hygiene and you can still enjoy a very full few weeks of fun and relaxation, while doing your part to protect those who are more vulnerable in the community.

As long as your idea of fun isn’t a spitting contest.

Hygiene is Queen

A very wise gentleman once said that “Good hygiene is the only kind of jeans that never goes out of style” (bonus points to whoever can name that quote). And it’s ultimately going to be your best defense against COVID-19.

Remember how I talked about that need to plan and practice and obsess over what I could do in the event of a fire drill? Sometimes knowing that what I’m doing is enough can be a great relief for me when I’m suffering from a bout of anxiety. If I doubt that I’m doing the right things, I might just keep coming up with more and more things I feel compelled to do, until I’m overwhelmed with a giant list of actions I HAVE to keep doing in order to feel safe.

So reminding yourself that keeping healthy in the midst of Coronavirus is as easy as following basic good hygiene might be comforting.

Keep it simple:

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water, for at least 20-30 seconds. Sing a song to help you get it done because that 20 second minimum is actually scientifically based – my personal favourites are singing the chorus to ‘Good as Hell’ by Lizzo twice through, or belting out ‘Mr. Brightside’ at top volume while everyone in the restroom moves away from me nervously. Impromptu personal concerts also help with social distancing. See? Multi-tasking. (Although two rounds of Happy Birthday or the ABCs works just as well I’m told…). Hand wash when you normally would; before and after eating and food handling, after coughing or blowing your nose, after handling money or high-traffic surfaces like door knobs, and after helping someone who is ill. If you can’t access soap and water, hand sanitizer is your next bet until you can get to properly washing your hands.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth (you’ll be frustrated by how often you do this within about 15 minutes, but bear with it). Cough or sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue and immediately dispose of it. A lot of us touch our face mindlessly, but try your hardest, especially if you haven’t washed your hands recently. Coronavirus is transferred through ‘droplets’, and is not airborne. So the virus’ best way to get into you is by hitching a ride on your fingers and going for all those mucous membranes you’ve got. Don’t make it easy for it. Wear a face mask if you have to, especially if you have a cough.
  • Clean and disinfect common household surfaces once or twice a day. Door handles, tables, banisters, the bathroom. Pretend you have a 3 year old who just ate an ice cream cone and took a tour through your house. Although I’m guessing some of you already do this on a daily basis anyway. If you touch it, wipe it. Pens, coffee machines, microwaves, remote controls, fridge doors. You know. All the necessary things I need to survive.
  • If you’re sick, stay home. Current guidelines by the Public Health of Ontario states that if you have a fever, new or worsening cough, or have been travelling/exposed to someone travelling in the last 14 days, you’re encouraged to stay at home to prevent others from catching anything. You will likely feel as if you have a terrible cold, but you might not get any sicker than that. The 2 week isolation allows time for those symptoms to lessen and abate. There is no current treatment for COVID-19 aside from the usual; rest, fluids, pain relievers and fever suppressants, and good old fashioned whining to your spouse about feeling unwell (at least that’s what my husband seems to find necessary when he’s sick). If you’re feeling really short of breath, notice any chest pains, or feel like it’s progressing past what you’re able to treat at home – especially if you already have health struggles yourself – call for emergency services right away.
  • Contact your local authorities for more up to date information and if you have any questions. Many communities are offering help lines to contact with your questions, or have a protocol in place at your local hospital/medical clinic. Please try to follow their suggestions, and always seek the most up to date source for accurate information. I am not in any way a doctor, and I urge you to use these as rough guidelines and suggestions but do not let this post be a substitute for the knowledge and expertise your local health care staff have to offer.
Be Mindful of Social Media

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram keep us far more connected than we have ever had the privilege of being in the past. And this actually may be a reason why we panic so quickly. We get updates about current situations nearly every half hour, and if you’re one of those who can’t seem to put your smart phone or tablet down, you may be getting over-loaded with non-stop information. This isn’t good for our brains, and can increase our anxiety as our poor mind tries to constantly change our thoughts to compensate for the ever-changing information.

In fact, the act of scrolling may be to blame, as we have an endless loop of posts to view and only need to keep flicking our finger to get more. Your brain never really gets the option to opt-out because there tends to be no singular button to push which would give your brain the signal that your current browsing session could stop. So you keep reading and reading, potentially getting more anxious because the information you’re getting could be inaccurate or extreme. Not a lot of fact-checking always goes into what you read from someone’s personal account – and it’s only once it’s gotten 10,000 views that it gets corrected.

Try to take a break from social media for a little while if you feel like all you are doing is scrolling through the latest bad news for the day. Trust me on this; you won’t miss out on much if you only check your Facebook feed twice a day. In this day and age, I feel like for every article I read, I have 3 friends who then text with a link before I’ve even finished the first paragraph. You will get the information you need pretty easily, and might find yourself feeling more relaxed throughout the day when you’re not being totally absorbed in your phone.

Good Self Care and Good Self Talk

When we are feeling fearful or preoccupied with the state of the world around us, we can sometimes forget to focus back on our current moment and take care of ourselves in the most basic of ways. One major component of staying healthy and well during a pandemic is the stuff you should be doing on a regular basis anyway!

Be sure to get adequate rest. Drink water. Eat well. Exercise. Do hobbies that make you happy. Be creative. Sing, dance, laugh with friends. Watch happy movies. Read good books – or trashy ones, I won’t judge. Watch the birds fly, or the clouds drift.

Journal your thoughts and feelings. Meditate. Use a vision board to imagine your future goals. Listen to inspiring podcast, or watch a documentary on something new.

Set a routine for your day, and try to follow it. Stay organized – don’t procrastinate on your taxes, or your laundry, or your writing. Take time to be silly, and take time to get at least one productive thing done every day that makes you feel proud.

Connect with your friends, and family. Connect with yourself.

Listen to yourself and how you speak. About others, and yourself. Listen to how you think. How you feel.

If it’s negative, challenge it. If it’s unkind, practice non-judgment. Ask yourself if the thought is helpful, even if it feels true. Question ideas and words that make you dislike yourself, and ask instead what a trusted friend would tell you. What you would say to someone else if they thought that way about themselves?

Practice in the mirror offering yourself kindness, gratitude, even grudging respect. Neutrality is better than false positivity.

If you are fearful, validate that emotion but ask yourself if you’re seeing things from only one angle? Is there another way to think of this? Instead of the worst case scenario, what’s the most likely thing that’s going to happen? Instead of the black and white view, try to find the grey. Repeat it to yourself. Tell yourself it’s OK if you don’t quite believe this new thought yet, but call it a win if you feel even a little bit better because you tried.

And keep trying. The more times you try, the better you will feel. Practice doesn’t always make perfect, but it at least makes us more mindful.

Don’t Panic

Overall, the best advice anyone can give at this time, is to try not to panic. Although this is a time to be cautious and aware of ourselves a little more, it does not mean the end is nigh, and that the worst thing will happen. All of the current suggestions and recommendations coming from the health care field right now are about being proactive, instead of reactive. If we take the time to start doing these steps right now, we are lessening the risk of spreading this illness to those who could be more severely affected.

Take care of yourself by using all the best common sense. Try not to let your anxiety take over and control your behaviour – if you notice yourself becoming distressed, practice good coping skills like soothing your physical self with deep breathing, mindfulness strategies, or even just counting until you feel a little more in control. Then try to think critically, logically. What can you do right now to help yourself? What can you control and focus your attention on without risking yourself or others? If you can do something, then try to follow through. If not, then try to comfort yourself by validating how uncertain you feel, but acknowledge that dwelling on that will not be helpful, and then pick an activity you can do that will make you feel more centered or distract you for the time being. Call a friend. Speak to your counselor. Follow your safety plans. Many counselors, myself included, are adapting to offer phone or online counseling to still be available to others when we are needed, while keeping everyone safe.

Reach out when you need to, but know that we will get through this. Trust that your local health care teams are working hard to keep you and your family safe.

But most importantly, go wash your hands.

Let me know if you find a better song than Mr. Brightside.

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