Dealing With COVID-19 Anxiety

Many people will be feeling more anxiety than usual due to the COVID-19 situation. As well as the possibility of becoming infected, many people will face other possible threats, including loss of income, shortage of supplies, unemployment, and social isolation. It is important to remember in this situation that anxiety is to be expected and in most cases will be an adaptive response which prepares people for action and protects them from danger. Anxiety is generally a normal and useful emotion!
Anxiety only becomes a problem when it leads to maladaptive coping, such as interfering with sleep, leading to excessive time worrying and interfering with ability to carry out everyday tasks. Below are some tips to assist in dealing with COVID-19 anxiety.
If the anxiety problems are mild, then they can be managed with self-help methods. Here are some to consider, which are supported by experts as often useful in managing anxiety:
  • Use Methods to Reduce Physical Tension. Times of high anxiety can be relieved by exercise or progressive muscle relaxation. Regular exercise, like daily walking or cycling, can reduce anxiety. Online instructions for progressive muscle relaxation can be found here. Mindfulness is also useful when feeling anxious: bring your attention to what you are experiencing at that moment, and non-judgementally observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. There are free online instructions for mindfulness, see example here. Meditation is good to do on a regular basis (i.e. not just as a way of coping at a time of anxiety) – whether it be mindfulness meditation or another form. A lot of anxiety is caused by thinking about future events that haven’t happened yet, and mindfulness can help with that. Also consider trying yoga, some forms of which include mindfulness.
  • Seek Social Support. While some people can contribute to anxiety, other people can play a role in managing or overcoming anxiety. It is a good idea to seek support from friends, family, or others. More specifically, it can help to talk about problems and feelings with a trusted person who will listen and understand. In the current situation where social distancing is recommended to reduce the chances of infection, it is important that people do not become isolated. Phone, text and Skype contact may need to be increased.
  • Adopt a Healthy Lifestyle. There are a number of lifestyle habits that can help anxiety. These include: engaging in regular aerobic exercise (e.g. walk, jog), spending time in contact with nature, maintaining a regular sleep pattern, having regular leisure time (e.g. pursuing a hobby), eating regular meals, and reducing or eliminating use of alcohol and other drugs.
  • Cultivate Acceptance. With the COVID-19 situation, there is a lot of uncertainty, which can contribute to anxiety. In such situations, it can be helpful to accept that there will be uncertainty and questions without immediate answers. It is possible to practice accepting uncertainty, e.g. by not responding to the thoughts and feelings that go with it, recognizing it is part of life, bringing your attention to the present. All these efforts towards acceptance can make a difference to how much a person is bothered by anxiety.
If anxiety gets out of control and cannot be managed with self-help methods and support from others, then professional help is warranted. Because of the need for social distancing to prevent spread of COVID-19 and the increasing demands that will be placed on the health system, online therapies are a good point of initial professional help. Australia is fortunate to have some excellent online therapy that is freely available. The following services provide evidence-based treatment for anxiety disorders:
  • MindSpot provides online therapy supported by a mental health professional. Treatment courses are available for PTSD, OCD and other disorders. It can be found here.
  • Mental Health Online provides treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, OCD, Social Anxiety Disorder, PTSD and Panic Disorder. It can be found here.
For other mental health advice during this time, visit this link.
For 24/7 Crisis Support, call Lifeline: 13 11 14.
Written by Professor Anthony Jorm, Australian Rotary Health Research Committee Member and Rotarian (President RC Carlton).