Alex H., a 31-year-old certified public accountant from Colorado, became sick with COVID-19 in March 2020. Like nearly half of people infected by the coronavirus, she has experienced lingering “long COVID” symptoms that affect not only her physical health but also her anxiety about getting sick from the virus again.
“While last year we could mostly stay home to avoid personal exposures, now society has ‘opened’ back up — and with it, the social expectation that our presence is required,” Alex, who asked to withhold her last name to freely talk about her health history, told HuffPost. “I am anxious for my friends and family and the risks of them getting COVID … I am afraid of catching COVID again myself.”
Much like Alex, some people are experiencing anxiety as social distancing and safety precautions have become more relaxed in certain areas — despite the rise of COVID variants. Fortunately, experts say there are ways to manage anxiety if you find yourself in a cycle of constantly calculating coronavirus risk.
What is risk tolerance anxiety?
First and foremost, it’s important to understand your COVID-19 risk tolerance in order to tackle your risk-related stress.
“COVID-19 risk tolerance refers to the risk that individuals are willing to take to potentially expose themselves to COVID-19,” said Phillip Kadaj, a physician and medical expert on JustAnswer, a digital platform that connects people to experts. “Think of it as a bell curve. On one extreme you have people that are very risk-averse. On the other extreme, you have people that are very risk-tolerant.”
Michele Kambolis, a Vancouver, Canada-based therapist and author of “When Women Rise,” explained that risk tolerance and anxiety can be “impacted by a variety of factors, including pre-existing mental health conditions, level of social support, the degree to which a person’s life has been impacted [by the pandemic], and whether they have experienced direct trauma due to COVID, such as illness or the loss of a loved one.”
Being more risk-averse isn’t necessarily a bad thing; by definition, those who are risk-averse take more safety precautions to limit COVID-19 exposure. However, when being mindful about health morphs into intrusive, anxiety-provoking thoughts about contracting the virus, this can be alarming.
What are some ways to mitigate your risk-related anxiety?
When anxiety over your risk begins to feel overwhelming, that’s your cue to hit pause and address what you can at the moment.
“Don’t take on all the decisions you need to make at once,” said Therese Rosenblatt, a therapist in New York and author of “How Are You? Connection in a Virtual Age.”
“If figuring out your work situation is causing the most pressure, figure that out first … If socializing with friends and family is at the top of your list, make a plan for [coping with] that first.”
“Anxiety is bred in future-focused, fear-based thinking. It’s only by rooting in the present that we can reassure ourselves and be available to life as it is.”
What does making a plan look like, exactly? Rosenblatt explained that this may mean choosing to step back again from anxiety-provoking social events. You could also offer alternatives, like meeting outside or breaking off into smaller groups.
It’s important to pay attention to how your thoughts progress on this. You don’t want to slip into avoidance, which could mean not seeing anyone at all or avoiding things you once loved because it now causes extreme distress. Journaling about your anxiety to identify the specific stressors behind these COVID risk-related thought spirals can be effective. If you find yourself avoiding all interactions, it might be time to talk to a therapist. (More on that in a moment.)
Ruminating about COVID risk can keep you from living in the moment. “Anxiety is bred in future-focused, fear-based thinking,” Kambolis said. “It’s only by rooting in the present that we can reassure ourselves and be available to life as it is.”
A grounding exercise that focuses on the five senses or meditation may shift your thinking away from worry, Kambolis explained. It’s important to note that meditation can worsen feelings of anxiety in a small percentage of people, according to recent research. In this case, Kambolis recommended trying a walking meditation outdoors, which can feel less “intense” than traditional mindfulness practices.
Similarly, Rosenblatt suggested practicing basic self-care and exercise to gently redirect your focus to connecting with your body, rather than hyper-focusing on your fears. “This soothing focus pushes thoughts and symptoms of stress out of the way,” she said.
Though doomscrolling is an unhealthy habit, Melissa V., 28, who is disabled and immunocompromised, explained that keeping thoughtfully current with the latest health guidelines and news — as well as talking with her doctors — mitigates her risk tolerance anxiety. Melissa, who also asked to remain anonymous to discuss her personal health, told HuffPost that this practice has allowed her to make informed choices that are best for her physical and mental health.
Experts agree Melissa’s approach can be helpful. “Assess the level of risk you are comfortable with and adapt your actions one step at a time,” Rosenblatt said.
How can you manage anxiety if you live with someone who is more risk-tolerant than you?
Coping with COVID risk anxiety is tricky enough, but living with someone who is not practicing the same health precautions as you may exacerbate your existing fears and uncertainties. Conversely, leaning on your support system and healthy connections has been proven to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and benefit your overall health.
Having honest discussions centered around “empathy and setting healthy boundaries” is essential to feeling comfortable and supported, said Cortland Dahl, the chief contemplative officer at Healthy Minds Innovations and a research scientist for the Center for Healthy Minds.
What’s more, Cheyenne Bryant, a psychology expert and author, said that “you can specifically address risk tolerance anxiety if someone else in your household is more comfortable doing certain activities than you by creating a plan together that includes activities that you both enjoy.”
Is therapy effective for risk tolerance anxiety?
Dahl said that seeking out therapy for risk-related anxiety may be necessary if “the usual experiences of anxiety become excessive, to the point that they disrupt our relationships, work, and other areas of life.”
Each therapist may take their own approach, but Bryant noted that the general goal of therapy should be to provide people with tools and resources to manage COVID risk anxiety — before a thought spiral begins.
Experiencing risk tolerance anxiety to some degree is absolutely normal. In fact, it’s safe to say many people probably experience a healthy dose of worry surrounding COVID risk. Practicing self-compassion when this worry rises to the level of anxiety can make you more aware of risk-related stress and more open to receiving support.
According to Rosenblatt, embracing uncertainty is really the key to managing risk tolerance anxiety.
“The people who will cope the best are those who find ways to adapt to uncertainty as much as they can, and take one day at a time,” she said. “Give yourself permission to find your new way of working and living, and readjust as necessary.”