Coping With Anxiety in a Pandemic
Written by Dr. Joel Breen is Serenity Lane’s Psychiatrist at our residential facility in Coburg, Oregon.
We’re now several weeks into a pandemic, something that is unprecedented in our lives, and it is making many of us anxious.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that nearly half of American adults say their mental health is being negatively affected by the pandemic. As Serenity Lane’s psychiatrist for its residential patients, I know that one of the ways anxiety holds power over us is that it feels as if, in the moment, this is all there is. We can comfort ourselves by remembering that feelings are transient.
While it’s normal to be anxious about COVID-19 and its ripple effects, excessively worrying about it takes time and energy. Uncertainty is difficult, but no amount of thinking about the past and projecting into the future will change the outcome of the thing we are anxious about. Instead, anxiety fills our minds with worst-case scenarios, tempting us to fixate on them.
Notice that I am not saying that you should ignore your concerns. I hope you will let yourself feel your emotions. Acknowledge the thought or feeling, examine it and let it go. A lot of our reactions depend on our point of view, and the mind can be trained to respond in healthier ways.
To cope with stress, use evidence-based best practices, such as staying physically safe, getting enough rest, nurturing your uplifting relationships, being physically active, expressing creativity and practicing mindfulness. Aim for balance in your life. For example, while you want to be informed, you may feel emotionally healthier if you choose one time slot each day to catch up on news and social media.
No one is immune from anxiety. However, people who were already dealing with anxiety or depression before this pandemic will benefit from good mental health therapy now. This is the time to lean in to treatment. As much as your time and finances allow, work with a counselor or psychiatrist.
At Serenity Lane, I treat people who are seeking recovery from alcohol or drug addictions, but they may also have a separate diagnosis of anxiety disorder. They have committed to residential treatment and are putting their lives on hold for a month before transitioning into after care.
To help them cope well with all of these changes, I give them several techniques that may help you, too, in this stressful time:
- Feed your spirit. It may be meditation or 12-step groups or religious services. Many resources are available online if you have access, and most are free.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Think of the thoughts bouncing around your head as the radio tuner in your car. If you think about what you’re grateful for, rather than what’s wrong, it’s a way of changing the station. Write down the things that are good today, whether it’s the weather, a healthy relationship or someone letting you into traffic. You can consciously switch from despair to a baseline of positivity, first on paper and then in your life.
- Take compassionate care of yourself. Learn techniques that soothe without creating new problems. Remember that alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and candy aren’t going to give you what you really want.
- Aim for the real goal. No, not happiness. We can’t truly sustain happiness. Rather, the goal is to do things in life that are meaningful to you, which will then create extra meaning in joyful times and carry you through the inevitable hard times. For me, I derive a lot of gratification from having meaningful work in my life. I have a lot of gratitude that I’m working in a place where I believe in what I’m doing and my work has meaning beyond an income. I focus on that through good and bad times.
I hope you will continue to take your emotional temperature, be proactive about your mental health, and be well.
Originally published in the Eugene Register Guard on 4/23/2020.