It is impossible to do much of anything these days without coming into contact with the words “Coronavirus” or “COVID-19.” They can be seen on almost every news and social media platform, not to mention the countless email notifications from businesses responding to the pandemic outbreak. Schools and businesses have closed, forcing children and parents to work from home and/or leaving many adults without employment. Grocery stores have limited supplies and people are being encouraged to practice “social distancing.” As a result of such changes, countless people across the nation are finding themselves experiencing a significant increase in anxiety/stress.
It is safe to say anxiety is a universal emotional experience. From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety serves to warn us of danger, keeping us alert and cautious. For some, anxiety can be motivating; for others, it can be debilitating. During this time of COVID-19, anxiety responses are normal and are to be expected. However, it is important to achieve and maintain a sense of control over your anxieties to prevent them from worsening. As the nation is continuing to be inundated with change and negative news updates, it is imperative that we remain cognizant of our thoughts as it is believed that thoughts are connected to emotions and guide our behaviors – how we respond during this time.
The way in which we process information during this time can influence how we experience anxiety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people tend to process information in four ways during crises:
- Simplify messages – Due to information overload, individuals tend to simplify the messages. While this seems to be a logical response, it can cause us to miss the important nuances of the message. This can lead us to misinterpretation of information and/or to hyperfocus on the negative parts of the message. When this occurs, our anxiety can be impacted.
- Hold on to current beliefs – During a crisis, people are often asked to do something that seems inconvenient and counterintuitive. When such a request is suggested, some of us find it difficult to make the suggested adjustments due to our beliefs about how to respond during times of crisis. Beliefs are convictions within our mind that we think are true. We often hold onto our beliefs strongly and find them difficult to alter. According to Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology, our thoughts are often influenced by our beliefs. Holding onto our beliefs makes it less likely that we will seek out information that contradicts our beliefs despite its accuracy. This limits the opportunity to change thoughts associated with the crisis.
- Search for additional information and opinions – It is not uncommon to search for additional information and opinions in times of crisis. In fact, it is encouraged to consider multiple sources; however, our thoughts and beliefs can influence the search process. Specifically, thoughts associated with fear and worry will likely affect our choice of content. As stated above, we will likely search for content that reinforces our current thoughts and beliefs. In addition, the frequency with which we search for additional information may become problematic. We can find ourselves searching for information multiple times throughout the day and spending most of the day taking in information.
- We believe the first message – Lastly, individuals tend to believe the first message received, whether it comes from a family/friend, post on social media, or a credible source. This is largely due to our perceived limits on time. As a result, there may be an overwhelming urge to act quickly. While it is understood that the speed of a response can reduce potential harm, acting quickly runs the risk of speculation. Speculation fuels anxiety, which can cause us to think of unrealistic scenarios, have ruminating thoughts, and develop inappropriate responses to the crisis.
What Can We Do?
The mind is a powerful tool. An increased awareness of our thoughts can grant us a sense of control about changing them.
- Attention shift – We have the ability to immediately shift our attention from one stimulus to another. Considering that our attention is shiftable, we have the power to choose what and where we set our focus. It is suggested that we focus our attention on what can be controlled and stay away from attending to what cannot be controlled. If it is out of your control, shift your attention!
- Re-appraising the situation – Cognitive reappraisal is a psychological strategy that can be used when events become too stressful. It involves reframing our perspective to lessen the emotional impact. To do this, we must be aware of our thoughts and be willing to change them to more to adaptive (functional) thoughts. Using a journal to record our thoughts helps us build awareness and provides an opportunity to practice reframing thoughts.
- Insert logic and reason in the decision-making process – During times of crisis, we will be required to make decisions as adjustments are being made. Relying on logic and reason to guide our decisions can help decrease our anxiety about the situation. Taking such an approach is often done objectively, without consideration of how we feel, and is dependent upon facts.
- Mindfulness practices – According to the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, mindfulness is the “moment-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations…” When we engage in mindfulness practices, we purposefully bringing attention to our thoughts and feelings. Techniques such as grounding can be beneficial in helping to stop the negative spiral as we inhale new information daily. The technique is simple yet effective. To do this, we bring our attention to the present. This can be achieved in various of ways. Examples include taking deep breaths; noticing sounds, sights, and smells within our current environment; participating in spiritual practices such as prayer and scripture reading; and listening to music, giving it all your attention.
- Develop an attitude of gratitude and kindness – When we help others and are being kind to one another, our brain naturally releases the neurotransmitters oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. This trifecta of chemical happiness boosts our mood and counteracts the stress hormone, cortisol.
- Rely on information from credible sources and messages that are consistent – As noted above, be aware of the type of information that you consume and consider its source. As we continue to consume information, we are feeding our thoughts. Challenge your thoughts by asking yourself, “What thought am I feeding by taking in this information?” Keep in mind that an effective message should be repeated, come from multiple credible sources, be specific to the current situation and up to date, and provide practical suggestions for action.
When feelings of fear begin to intensify and become overwhelming, impacting our ability to function from day to day, an anxiety disorder should be considered. Please seek out mental health providers in your community if you have concerns about this. Consult with your insurance carrier, conduct a Google search for nearby providers, and seek referrals from your primary care physician. People with preexisting mental health conditions should continue with their treatment and be aware of new or worsening symptoms. If it is an emergency, please call 911 or go to your nearest hospital.
Smith, M. & Robinson, L. (2020). Coronavirus anxiety: Coping with stress, fear, and uncertainty.
Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/coronavirus-anxiety.htm?pdf=32436
Stewart-Weeks, L. (2018). 1-minute mindfulness exercises. Retrieved from