Covid-19: Anxiety Is Normal, What You Can Do to Cope

Older woman staring out window

Posted March 26, 2020 by UVM Medical Center

Anxiety is natural response to threats that are looming or beyond our control. It mobilizes us for action, and focuses our attention on possible sources of danger. When fear and anxiety take on a life of their own, we often get so focused on making the anxiety go away that we lose perspective, and simmer in worry and disconnection. Here are some strategies that may help you stay healthy and connected in the midst of this pandemic.

Ground yourself. Notice what is true about the present moment—where you are, who you are with, how your body feels. Focus on the facts and the details. Notice the sounds of the birds, or the people around you. Feel the temperature of the air inside and out. If you notice yourself starting to feel under the weather, describe “I feel an itch in my throat,” or “as I pay attention to my headache, I notice I start to breathe less deeply and then I start to feel woozy.” Sometimes anxiety generates physical symptoms that make the anxiety more intense. Focus on a pleasant or neutral sensation or image.

Identify what is and is not in your control. Some people find drawing helpful here. Draw a big circle, and on the inside, write everything that is within your control. Where you go, how often you wash your hands, how close you sit to others, and how often you check the news are some examples of things that might be within your control. Outside the circle, write everything that is not in your control. Past exposure to the virus, the behavior of other people, and whether a particular product will run out of stock at a store are examples of events that are not under your control. Reckoning with the limitations of our human control can be challenging. Faith and spirituality may comfort you and guide your personal process of finding your place as a vulnerable person on this planet. 

Take action based on what is in your control and will help keep you and others safe. Healthy anxiety urges us to take action to anticipate and reduce potential threats. Set a realistic goal and give yourself permission to be done preparing when you have done what you can. Celebrate and recognize your efforts, and the efforts of those around you.

Separate worry from problem-solving. Worry and anxious actions can feel like solving problems, but are mostly about making the feeling of anxiety go away temporarily. For many people, worrying and over-focusing on news can increase our distress and take our minds away from the people and activities we value the most. Because these habits happen automatically, awareness is key! Get to know your own signals that you are worrying (for example, rapidly shifting attention, furrowed brow, others telling you so), and practice choosing to ground yourself again, and to connect with others.

Appreciate the good. Stress can bring out our vulnerabilities, but also our strengths. How are your family, friends, and community showing their strength during this crisis? When someone shows you kindness, see if you can really take that kindness in and let the person know you appreciate them. Take time to look around you and notice any safety and comforts you do have. Savor moments of peace and connection. This may be a time to reflect upon the many people who have worked to further our safety, health, and freedom across generations. 

Use this opportunity to reflect on what matters to you and take action. This time of global crisis invites us to ask, “What do I care about?” and “What kind of person do I want to be?” given the stark realities of illness, change, and loss. It takes strength to approach a crisis, feel fear, and decide to keep trying. Be courageous in whatever way matters to you. Reach out to those to whom your voice may be a comfort. Think about how you will want to tell your story of this time to future generations, and let your wisdom guide you. 

Emily Pichler, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Psychological Services at the University of Medical Center.

Learn More Ways to Stay Healthy and Cope with COVID-19