The novel coronavirus continues to batter cities and overload hospitals across the US, causing residents to experience anxiety over the unknown, the health of their loved ones, the economy, and more.
Psychologists say feeling worried and anxious is normal in a crisis like this, but it can be managed.
To cope, limit your media exposure to the issue, do your part in helping control the virus’s spread, reach out to others, and follow these other expert tips.
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Know that feeling anxious about coronavirus is OK and normal.
With rising case loads, physical isolation from loved ones, and, for many, a loss of routine and purpose, Americans have been enduring a mental-health crisis alongside the medical one for months.
A May study found more than a third of adults have signs of clinical anxiety or depression.
That’s understandable, Julie Pike, a clinical psychologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who specializes in anxiety disorders, told Business Insider. “Anxiety is mother nature’s way of trying to protect us by pushing us to resolve uncertainty and figure out a solution,” she said.
But while eliminating coronavirus-related stress is a tall order, it can, and should, be managed so you can maintain your mental health — and your immunity.
Business Insider talked to mental-health professionals and survivors of COVID-19 about how to cope.
Tell yourself something that is certain.
The unknown of the pandemic — how long it will last, who it will affect, and how it could change our lives forever — is a large part of why it’s so anxiety-provoking.
“Uncertainty fuels anxiety,” Natalie Dattilo, director of psychology in Brigham & Women’s Hospital’s department of psychiatry, told Business Insider.
To counter that, remind yourself of what is certain, no matter how minuscule.
Say something like, “I am certain that no matter what happens, we will find a way to deal with it. Or, “I am certain that I love my family and will do everything in my power to protect them.” Or even, “I am certain that I am standing here today, still breathing, and the sun is shining,” Dattilo recommended.
“By adding even a small element of certainty in the face of overwhelming uncertainty,” she said, “you can re-establish a connection with the present moment, ground yourself, and maintain a good sense of self-control and confidence.”
Limit your media exposure, especially if you struggled with anxiety before the pandemic.
Panic arises when people overestimate a threat and underestimate their coping abilities — both behaviors media consumption can fuel.
“While it is fine to have a general idea of what is happening, especially if you live near an area with high concentration of cases, it’s important to limit media exposure, particularly from undocumented or potentially unreliable sources,” she said.
The World Health Organization’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has also encouraged people to check the news from reliable sources only once or twice a day.
Do what you can to protect yourself and your family, including excellent hygiene and social distancing practices.
Crystal Cox/Business Insider
Action is the antidote to anxiety, and there’s actually a lot individuals can do to protect themselves and their families.
Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, wear a mask when you venture out, and keep your distance from people you don’t live with.
Do your part in protecting your community, whether by helping more vulnerable neighbors with groceries or simply staying home.
Crystal Cox/Business Insider
You can also take action to help your community, whether that means helping an elderly neighbor get groceries, donating blood, or staying in even when you feel healthy and are able to go out.
Because asymptomatic people can carry and spread COVID-19, “the choices you make about where you go can be the difference between life and death for someone else,” the WHO director general said.
Try to focus on what you are grateful for, not wish you would change or go away.
Rather than marinating in worries that you’ll get the coronavirus, your wedding will be cancelled, or your kids won’t be able to return to school in fall, “focus on what you value and what you are grateful for,” Pike said.
For her, that means being able to spend more time with her children and that spring, and its accompanying warmer and longer days, is around the corner.
She recommends people make a daily “gratitude list” in order to build psychological resiliency.
Doing so “also helps us to stop narrowly focusing on potential threats or negative elements in our environment, which our limbic brain … is wired to do,” she said. “Widening our perspective and recognizing that while things are challenging and uncertain, there are also good things in our daily lives” can make a big difference.
Seek virtual help from mental-health professionals, or download a de-stressing app.
Therapists around the country are shifting their practices online, and many established virtual therapy services like Brightside and TalkSpace are experiencing booms in business.
Some services are changing their offerings in light of coronavirus; TalkSpace, for one, is offering free therapy for healthcare workers on the front lines of fighting the pandemic.
And some therapists are holding free online group therapy sessions, Business Insider previously reported.
Some de-stressing apps can help more immediately and cheaply, too, Melissa Robinson-Brown, a therapist based in New York City, said.
She recommended the guided meditation apps Calm and Headspace, the latter of which is currently offering free subscriptions, and Daylio, which helps you track your mood and daily activity so you can keep a mental-health promoting schedule.
You don’t even need to download an app to experience the anxiety-reducing magic of simply breathing.
Psychiatrist Dr. Mimi Winsberg, the co-founder and chief medical officer of Brightside, recommends the 4-7-8 method, which can reinstill a sense of calm when you feel out of control.
The method involves breathing in for four seconds, holding for seven, and exhaling for eight, Briana Borten, clinical ayurvedic specialist and founder of The Dragontree wellness company, previously told Insider.
But more than the particular count, what matters is that the exhale is longer than the inhale. “Lengthening the exhale emphasizes the release. You’re releasing whatever is going on and relieving stress,” Borten said.
Attempt to maintain a routine.
Todd Herman and his wife, who were quarantined in a New York City apartment with their three kids, tried to maintain a routine for the kids, with scheduled reading times and other activities.
That strategy is important for adults as well, as daily routines like commutes and dinner dates come to a halt.
“Within our homes, maintaining structure and routine is critical because it reinforces order and predictability,” Dattilo said. “It’s also something over which we have control. We know that structure binds anxiety, so to the extent that we can maintain our routines, that helps.”
Eat healthy, don’t smoke, and exercise when possible.
Good nutrition and sufficient movement are good for both body and mind.
WHO’s Tedros recommended eating “a healthy and nutritious diet, which helps your immune system to function properly,” limiting alcohol and sugary drink consumption, and not smoking.
“Smoking can increase your risk of developing serious disease if you become infected with COVID-19,” he said.
He also encouraged people, in compliance with local and national guidelines, to go out for a walk, run, or bike ride while keeping a distance from others, or otherwise getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day for adults and an hour for children.
“If you can’t leave the house, find an exercise video online. Dance to music. Do some yoga, or walk up and down the stairs.” For people working at home, he added, get up for a short break every 30 minutes.
Use the time to reach out to loved ones and reconnect with old friends.
Joey Hadden/Business Insider
Social isolation can fuel depression and, over the long term, is even linked to a shorter life span.
So just because you may be physically distant from other people, you can, and should, stay socially connected to them.
“If you check in with people once a month, check in four times a month,” Herman said.
And fortunately, doing so is easier today than ever.
Tools like FaceTime and Skype “may help us still feel and maintain those connections without potentially putting ourselves at risk of being exposed to the virus,” loneliness researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, previously told Business Insider.
She recommended being proactive about reaching out to others and asking how they’re doing — you’ll boost your mental health as well as theirs, since they’ll at least experience the perception of support, which research shows can reduce stress.
Holt-Lunstad added that the silver lining to something like a directive to reduce contact with the outside world is the ability to slow down and connect with the people closest to us.
“When you’re having people still express love and support in a variety of ways, it can make those periods of relative confinement more bearable.”
Use the experience to reevaluate areas of your life.
Alex, a 29-year-old in the UK, has needed to isolate himself for periods in the past in order to prevent common viruses from exacerbating his cystic fibrosis.
He recommends people new to isolation use the time to reconsider how they want their lives to look after coronavirus.
He, for example, has come out of past periods of isolation with a dedication to make the most of his college experience, the desire to travel more even though it means hauling around suitcases of medicine, or with the gumption to quit his job and launch his own business.
“This isn’t a punishment, this is actually a real opportunity for people to be able to reflect on themselves and their lives up to this point,” he previously told Business Insider. “It’s a real opportunity to set their lives straight.”
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