Mental Health

Understanding & Managing Anxiety During COVID-19


If you missed our Facebook Live, Understanding and Managing Anxiety, with Jon Hershfield, MFT, director of the OCD & Anxiety Center, here’s a recap. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a surreal and challenging time, hallmarked by constant feelings of uncertainty. Currently, there’s an abundance of unpredictability about how the virus works, how it affects those that become infected, and how long states will encourage citizens to stay home and socially distance. How will store openings work? When will schools open up? What will online learning look like? You may be getting anxious now just thinking about it. 

This increase in anxiety is normal, and if you already struggle with an anxiety-based disorder, it may be even more pronounced. Conditions like anxiety and OCD are driven by an intolerance of uncertainty. 

Navigate COVID-19 Anxiety

There are some things you can do to navigate anxiety better during this pandemic.

Pick a level of news and social media intake that is healthy for you.

Figure out what is healthy and nourishing for YOU. Too much news can be toxic and give you more to worry about. Ask yourself, is this helpful for me, or am I doing this out of habit or fear? And then see if you can make changes to get the amount of information you need and hold yourself to that.

Engage in physical exercise and healthy eating.

Two important building blocks for good mental health, movement and proper nourishment for the body is proven to reduce feelings of anxiety.

Develop and commit to a mindful meditation practice.

It’s easy to get lost in your head with so many “what if?” questions. Learn to catch yourself in those narratives and come back to the present moment. Check out this recorded Facebook Live with Andrea Gottlieb, PhD, for a mindfulness primer and practice.

Engage in activities that ground you in the here and now.

Activities like listening to music keep you fully present in what you’re doing. Pay attention and listen actively.

Remember that you have been navigating uncertainty your whole life.

We don’t have a choice whether or not we navigate uncertainty. We’ve been doing it since the moment we were born. Improve your confidence by leaning into the uncertainty and figuring out how much uncertainty you can tolerate. It gets better with practice and time. With COVID-19 in particular, people are receiving a massive dose of uncertainty, not just about one thing but about several different things. If you feel a bump in your levels of anxiety, that’s okay. You’re being asked to do more navigating through fear and uncertainty than you’re used to. 

Look to what’s good now, what has not been changed by the pandemic.

Anxiety can trigger very black and white thinking. Threat or no threat. COVID-19 is a threat. Therefore, I’m in a threatening state. Everything is threatening, everything is bad. The reality is, COVID-19 has had no impact on things like your favorite movie, the quality of music you listen to, or your family ties. Look for those things that haven’t been affected by the pandemic and use them as part of your grounding strategy. 

Use non-avoidant strategies.

While anxiety is a natural part of the human experience, when it’s too high, it’s harder to function and make decisions. In order to think clearly and choose the wisest behaviors, sometimes it’s necessary to bring anxiety down immediately. These non-avoidant strategies can help calm anxiety both mentally and physically:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation. Progressive muscle relaxation is methodically tensing and releasing or imagining the release of areas of the body that are holding anxiety. For example, tensing up your shoulders and neck purposely, then slowly relaxing them. From the top of your head to the bottom of your feet, address the muscle tension so your brain knows you do not need to feel tension.
  • Paced breathing. One of the symptoms of anxiety is rapid breathing. Breathing rapidly sends too much oxygen at one time to the brain, triggering an alerted state. Paced breathing changes the ratio of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your brain and takes it from a state of alertness to a calmer, more relaxed state that inhibits stress chemicals. Breathing slowly and intentionally sends the signal to the brain that there is nothing to be scared of. 
  • The length of time you breathe in and out for doesn’t matter as long as you exhale for longer than you inhale. Start by putting your hand on your stomach. Take a slow, long breath in your nose, then exhale through the mouth to send the signal to your brain, “I got this.” Repeat. With each exhale, imagine you are breathing out the tension and intensity. You are lowering the lights on your anxiety.

Feeling anxious during a global pandemic is normal, and it’s okay to need help in managing it. Remember that you aren’t alone, and the tips above can help you put life during COVID-19 in perspective. For more resources and information on anxiety and mental health, visit the Sheppard Pratt blog today.