Mental Health

Be Present: Managing Anxiety and OCD Through COVID-19 (Part 1)


When there are small changes and small amounts of uncertainty in everyday life, it’s easy to get caught up in narratives about what might go wrong, burdening yourself with the responsibility to predict the future and control it. But when there are large changes with large amounts of uncertainty, it can actually be easier to see the futility in taking on that responsibility. 

What are some tips for keeping anxiety in check when there’s so much change and uncertainty?

This crisis can represent an opportunity to let go of predicting the future and focus instead on what’s right in front of you, here in the present. We often become anxious because we start to think we’re going to fail some future test or challenge. By rejecting that concern and putting all of our energy on the present, we can reduce some of our anxiety and see the anxiety that remains to be more tolerable.

Here are some tips for committing to the present:

  • Welcome uncertainty. Notice the mental efforts you put into trying to figure out the future, to pass a test you actually don’t have to take right now. Catch yourself ruminating and simply note it, with a gentle, “I don’t have to do this right now.”
  • Identify anxiety as a body state. Notice how it feels in your body to be anxious and identify it in purely physical terms. In other words, instead of telling yourself that you’re overwhelmed with anxiety, tell yourself you notice your heart beating fast, tension in your shoulders, rapid breathing, etc. Aim to make space for these sensations without getting wrapped up in a story about how anxious you are.
  • Engage in present-moment activities. Yes, stay informed, but spending too much time watching people on tv talk about what’s coming can trick your mind into thinking there’s more you need to be doing. Cook, make art, play music, organize your closet, etc., and pay close attention to what you are doing. These are not mere distractions. They are connecting you to the present moment, where you do have control.
  • Develop a meditation practice. Learning to watch the mind habitually wander into the imagined future and bringing it back without judgment is an essential skill.
  • Keep it simple. Stick to the CDC guidelines and don’t start adopting new guidelines that you may have extrapolated from what the CDC has said. They have not recommended specific measures for handling the mail, for example, so don’t make up rules based on assumptions. Wait for more official information before making additional changes.

Social isolation is putting me on edge – any tips for socializing/human interaction while being safe?

Right now the best way to see the people we don’t already live with the soonest is to stay home. Keeping in touch with the people you care about by phone or video is a great idea, but I recommend doing some self-inquiry before engaging in too much remote socializing. For each person there is an amount of emailing, social media posting, video calling, and phone conversations that is nourishing. But for some, too much of this can actually increase feelings of isolation by creating too many reminders of what we can’t have right now. Seek out a balance of rewarding behaviors in both remote social interactions and solitary activities.

Should I be trying to maintain my usual routine? Why or why not?

Everybody’s routine has changed in light of this crisis, but not the same amount. You don’t have to put pressure on yourself to mimic your old routine if the demands placed on you now make that extraordinarily difficult. This may be especially true for parents working at home simultaneously caring for their children who are not in school. Instead of focusing on what your routine “should” be, try to come up with a routine that makes sense and can (more or less) be repeated daily. Knowing that the task you are doing has specific parameters within a schedule can help you stay present. Switching from one task to the next can also be a mood booster. Don’t overdo it. Try to create structure with flexibility so you don’t invite self-judgment. But don’t abandon the whole concept of routine because this sends the signal to your brain that you are in so much danger you’re not even taking care of yourself.

  • Jon Hershfield, MFT

    Director, The Center for OCD and Anxiety
    Anxiety Disorders, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)