Mental Health

Experts Share Their 8 Best Tips For Managing COVID Anxiety

#6: Create space for feeling anxious.

by JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
A person washes their hands. Experts explain how to manage anxiety around COVID.
Pongsak Tawansaeng / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

After enduring a year of COVID in the U.S., coronavirus anxiety is still running high. More than 42% of U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety and depression in December 2020, compared to 11% in December 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Experts say that the best defense against coronavirus anxiety is staying calm.

"Our brains pay attention to startling news and possible threats — which means we easily get swayed into thinking something is worse than it is," Catherine Franssen, Ph.D., director of the NeuroStudies minor and an assistant psychology professor at Longwood University in Virginia, tells Bustle. "We don’t always make the best decisions when we respond to a panic."

Scientists know a lot more about the virus than they did a year ago, and millions of people are now vaccinated. But coronavirus anxiety can still cause stress and unease in healthy, low-risk individuals. A Dutch study published in The Lancet in December 2020 found that during the COVID pandemic, people who’d never experienced depression or anxiety before were at increased risk of experiencing both. A new term, coronaphobia, has emerged to describe extreme feelings of fear and anxiety around the COVID virus.

"We ... are especially concerned about the level of anxiety that everyone seems to be feeling," says Ashley Womble, head of communications for Crisis Text Line. "We're seeing more conversations from texters every day about this, especially from texters who identify as Asian.” Hate crimes and hate speech against Asian Americans have been on the rise during the pandemic, and that’s triggered higher anxiety and stress. “The top issues for texters about coronavirus and anxiety, coronavirus and school, and coronavirus and finances."

Managing your anxiety around coronavirus means acknowledging your feelings while also being practical about the virus' spread, experts say. Here is an action plan for feeling less anxious about coronavirus.


Educating Yourself In Controlled Doses About Coronavirus Can Help Anxiety

Knowledge is power when it comes to fighting anxiety, because it's easy to fear something you don't understand. "Educate yourself on the virus and the possible risk factors to you and your family, and then take appropriate precautions," therapist Heidi McBain, L.M.F.T., tells Bustle.

"Fear catches our attention and sells headlines (and hand sanitizer), but it doesn’t lead to our best thinking," Franssen says. "Stick to reading one to two reliable sources a day." The CDC and WHO are primary sources for information about the coronavirus and vaccines.


Practicing Self-Care Can Lower Coronavirus-Induced Anxiety

Anxiety symptoms can wreak havoc on mood, sleep, appetite, and other aspects of health. It's important to take care of yourself to feel better emotionally and physically, particularly after so many months of coronavirus anxiety.

"Focus on self-care to help keep you present and grounded in this moment," McBain says. "This might include exercise, meditation, eating a healthy diet, mindfulness, getting a good night’s sleep, doing something you find relaxing, and so on." It's not selfish to try and calm yourself down if anxiety is damaging your heath and quality of life.


Consider How You're Sharing Information About Coronavirus

Anxiety around coronavirus may be leading you to share a lot of information with those you care about, but the consequences may be negative for them, too, experts say. "If you’re sharing sources, think [about] why," psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman, M.D. says. "Are you adding to hysteria or are you helping someone get to know facts that will help them?" If you're finding that sharing a lot of news isn't helping you or others, pausing that process can be helpful.


Distract Yourself From Ruminating About Coronavirus

When stress begins to climb it can be hard to manage, but getting your mind off of it can help, McBain says. Anxiety around the coronavirus is no different, and coronaphobia, or intense fear of getting sick, can make those thoughts all-consuming. "Try distracting yourself when your anxiety is escalating, with activities such as reading, watching a movie, making plans with family and friends, and so on," she tells Bustle. These distraction techniques can help you refocus and get a bigger-picture view on your situation and risks.


Make An Action Plan To Deal With Coronavirus To Lower Anxiety

By now you’re likely an old hand at dealing with sudden shutdowns, your masks getting caught in the washing machine, or an unexpected positive test in your bubble. But experts say past experience helps anxiety; a study in the UK published in The Lancet in December 2020 found that anxiety levels peaked at the beginning of COVID lockdowns, but gradually plateaued as people adapted to their new normal.

Make sure you have supplies — nonperishable foods, medications — in case officials in your area recommend you self-quarantine (typically, for a period of 14 days, or the maximum incubation period for the virus). Being prepared can help alleviate feelings of uncertainty.


Create Space For Feeling Anxious About Coronavirus

Sometimes anxiety just needs to be expressed. "Creating time and space in your schedule to really feel your feelings instead of resisting them can be helpful," McBain says.

She suggests setting a timer for a short amount of time — try five minutes — and sit with the fear and the emotions attached to it. This is the time to express any anxious thought patterns about COVID-19. "When your timer goes off, process these feelings further by journaling about it or talking to a friend or loved one about your struggles," she says. Processing anxiety in this way may help it feel less intense in the future.


Try To Avoid Feedback Loops Of Coronavirus Anxiety

Even if you're managing your own anxiety successfully, an encounter with a panicking person can trigger renewed fears. Dr. Lieberman suggests avoiding people who are likely to be panicking, or cause you to panic. But what if the person in a panic is your partner, or your roommate? It can be helpful to set some boundaries around COVID talk by saying something like, “I love you, but I’m not in a good headspace to be the best support for you right now,” and then directing the person to other resources that you’ve found helpful. Telling people gently when you’re not comfortable with a conversation can go a long way.


Talk To A Therapist About Your Anxiety About Coronavirus

Professional help can be a source of neutral, impartial support during tough times. "Consider speaking with a therapist who specializes in anxiety for support, and to help you come up with new coping strategies during this hard time," McBain says. Organize a Skype or phone call to make sure you keep in-person risk to a minimum. If you don't already have a relationship with a therapist, telehealth services can also help you make that connection. If you're experiencing acute anxiety, reaching out to Crisis Text Line (text "home" to 741741 or 85258 in the UK) can help you work through immediate mental health needs.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.


Catherine Franssen Ph.D. director of NeuroStudies at Longwood University

Dr. Carole Lieberman M.D., psychiatrist

Heidi McBain LMFT, therapist

Ashley Womble, head of communications for Crisis Text Line

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