Coronavirus Anxiety:
The Key to Coping

by Dave Carbonell, PhD

Coronavirus is both a serious threat, to people all around the globe, and a source of significant anxiety. Here are some tips for coping with coronavirus anxiety.  There are already lots of sources for this on the Internet. What I particularly want to add to what's already available is how it helps to accept the presence of anxious thoughts, rather than oppose or try to change the content of those thoughts.

Make an Action Plan and Stick to it

The first step involves protecting yourself from the Coronavirus, because that's a higher priority than dealing with Coronavirus anxiety. Visit the web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify helpful actions you can  take on a regular basis. these are already fairly well known, and include:

 
1. Wash your hands frequently

2. Minimize face touching

3. Social distancing (fancy talk for “keep 6 feet away” from others)

4. Regularly disinfect frequently touched surfaces in your home

5. Maintain a supply of food and other essential goods.

Your action plan should also include other activities which can partially replace or compensate for the activities you have given up while staying home. This might include:

1. Exercise (lots of good free video workouts online)

2. Stay in contact with loved ones via phone and Internet

3. Do something to help others

4. Create a daily schedule for yourself

5. Recreational walks with friends and neighbors, keeping a safe distance apart

6. Mindfulness meditation (click here for a simple recorded meditation).

Get Useful Information
on a Regular Schedule

If you’re like most people, you’re getting far more information than you need or can use from e-mail, traditional media, and social media. Continually “checking in” often becomes a habit that interrupts your ordinary activities and focus, and actually increases your anxiety. Public officials and physicians and authorities in your area need constant updating of information. The average citizen does not. Take charge of this information flow and make it serve your purposes.

1.   Identify two or three reliable sources you will use – perhaps the CDC and a good local source, like your state or local health agency.

2.   Check in with these sources (and only these sources) on a fixed daily schedule, perhaps two or three times daily, like an appointment.

3.   When you feel an urge to check outside of your schedule, or when emails or other links draw your attention elsewhere, remind yourself of your plan. Interrupt the pattern with some other activity, perhaps some stretching, or conversation with a loved one, or a walk with your dog. Then resume your regular activity. Postpone checking media for more information until your scheduled time arrives.

Don't be Surprised That
Worry Continues to Intrude

Let’s say you have a useful plan, and are executing it regularly. That doesn’t mean you will no longer have anxiety. Our brains are organized to expect the worst. Our brains would rather see ten lions that aren’t there, than miss seeing one lion that is.

So it’s a common part of human experience to continue experiencing anxiety after we’ve done everything that can be done about the problem. At that point, the anxiety and worry no longer offers us any useful signal or warning. But that doesn’t mean that you can easily dismiss or ignore it. Don’t get tricked into arguing with or resisting these thoughts, because that doesn’t work for most people. Your best bet is to treat it like the repetitive, unnecessary interruption that it is, rather than struggle to silence or refute it.

Notice, Accept, and Defuse
Your Worrisome
Coronavirus Anxiety

Actions can be useful in minimizing your risk of coronavirus. Coronavirus anxiety, however, will not minimize your risk. No amount of worry will reduce anyone’s risk. Only action can do that. So plan on taking a different approach with Coronavirus anxiety. You don’t need to take the worrisome thoughts seriously once you have an action plan in place.

Notice what happens when your thoughts turn to worry:

1.   They start with “what if…?”.

2.   They focus on “how bad” an event would be, rather than how likely it is.

3.   They focus on an imagined future, rather than the present.

4.   They invite over-thinking, and distract from actions you can take.

5.   They focus on bad possibilities, and overlook the resources and abilities you have to take care of yourself.

6.   They call your attention to physical sensations of nervousness, and make you think those symptoms are a sign of illness rather than nervousness.

7. They suggest that there's something wrong with you, or anyone who has such persistent worrisome thoughts.

Three Steps for Coronavirus Anxiety

Acknowledge and Accept. I'm having Coronavirus anxiety right now. I notice that I’m worrying, and I let myself notice it, rather than trying to distract myself or pretend it’s not there. I accept the presence of the thoughts rather than trying to suppress them or think something else. If these are the thoughts I have to have right now, it’s okay, I can have unpleasant thoughts.

Notice that acceptance doesn’t mean I accept a bad outcome or fate. I do anything and everything I can do to protect myself and my loved ones. Acceptance means that I accept, rather than resist, the intrusive and persistent thoughts about a possible bad outcome. We don’t control our thoughts, and it’s usually not useful to try. And, just because I'm having a grim thought about a future health problem, or financial problem, that doesn't tell me anything accurate about what will happen in the future.

Humor. If I’m already doing whatever I can usefully do about the risk of corona virus, then these thoughts are no longer giving me any kind of useful signal or warning. They’re like ten thousand copies of the same e-mail I already responded to. They’re annoying noise. But I can’t delete them the way I would an unwanted e-mail, because I don’t control my thoughts. I will probably get better results humoring them, and playing with them, than I will from arguing with or trying to suppress them.

How do I humor them? I might write a list of my worries so that, when the thoughts of a particular worry return, I can remind myself that I already have it on my list. Maybe I make them into a song, or a limerick. Maybe I think of a different song to sing while washing my hands, instead of Happy Birthday or whatever I've been using. I might exaggerate the thoughts, rather than trying to minimize them. Maybe I simply agree with the thoughts in a humorous or exaggerated way, or in a bad foreign accent. I play with the thoughts, rather than oppose them.

If you have any tendency toward superstitious beliefs, like the idea that your thoughts alone can influence the future, this step might seem risky to you. But that doesn't mean that your thoughts will influence or shape the future. That just means you have thoughts about your thoughts shaping the future. Thoughts, no matter how foul, are all discomfort rather than danger.

These thoughts don’t count for much. Notice that, and allow them to run their course while you turn your attention and energy to something that does.

Action. Having noticed I was once again getting embroiled in the thoughts, and done something to humor them rather than oppose them, I can get back to whatever is next on my agenda. Maybe the thoughts leave, or maybe I bring them with me. Either is okay because the Coronavirus anxiety is no longer an important reminder of anything to do. I’m already doing what I need to do.

But wouldn’t I be better off getting rid of the thoughts? Yes, if there were a way to do that without causing more worry and discomfort, that would be good. But most efforts to suppress our unpleasant thoughts have the opposite effect of making them more persistent. If you’ve ever had a song “stuck in your head”, you know what I mean. When you argue with these thoughts, you're really arguing with yourself. That's a contest that results in a long, drawn out, never ending tie!

Want More?

Here's a good little e-book from Russ Harris, Ph.D., an Australian psychologist who does excellent work with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It's a guide to coping with coronavirus anxiety from an ACT perspective.

It's really good! Thanks to Dr. Harris for making this available for free. You can download it here.

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© 2010-2020 David Carbonell, PhD.  Anxiety Coach® is a registered mark.
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Last updated on July 14, 2020