Mental Health

Be Present: Managing Anxiety and OCD Through COVID-19 (Part 2)


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.

How do I stop my catastrophic thoughts from spiraling?

Catastrophic thoughts are normal events that arise in the mind. Trying not to have them just makes them louder and more intrusive, essentially tagging them in the brain as very, very interesting. But it’s important to understand that having thoughts is not the same thing as thinking. Thinking is an activity, a mental behavior, something you do to achieve an outcome. Catastrophizing, or dwelling on a negative prediction and forming conclusions about your perceived inability to cope, is a mental behavior that you can label and abandon. So perhaps you notice the statement “I could get sick” arising in the mind. OK, go ahead and acknowledge that you had that thought, just the same as you may acknowledge the headline of a newspaper. Then, instead of reading and trying to make sense of the newspaper article, put the “paper” down and move along to another task.

Are there any self-care activities you recommend right now?

Different people may need different kinds of self-care, so be honest with yourself about what your needs are and don’t be perfectionistic about any form of self-care you think you’re supposed to be doing. That being said, regular exercise, meditation, and entertainment that you find genuinely nourishing are all good ideas. If you have a therapist, keep up with your sessions. If you have access to online support groups, these can also be a useful part of self-care.

My kids are anxious about being out of school. How can I help their feelings of anxiety? How do I help them when I’m anxious too?

You’ll see a lot of info online encouraging you to stay calm and model a calm approach to your children. While this is certainly good advice, it’s also important to model for your children that part of being in control is accepting the presence of anxiety. It’s okay to let them know you worry, within reason, and it’s okay to let them see you have at least some anxiety about the pandemic. What’s most important is that you let them know that a person being anxious doesn’t mean they’re in danger or doing something wrong. It’s okay to be anxious. The question is whether or not you continue to live your life according to your values, independently from whether you are experiencing anxiety. Here are some core messages you can consider getting across to your children:

  • We are in this together as a family and we are doing everything we’re supposed to be doing to stay safe.
  • We will get through this and things will go back to normal, so in the meantime we can look for ways to make the best of this new way of living.
  • We can connect with your classmates and teachers online. Right now the schools are coming up with ways to do school remotely. In the meantime, let’s keep reading whatever books have already been assigned and look for other (age appropriate) ways to keep learning from home.
  • We can practice some new routines, like family meditation time or family arts/crafts time, to keep our minds healthy.
  • Jon Hershfield, MFT

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