What Therapists Tell Patients Who Are Anxious About Coronavirus

If the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting your mental health, read this.
“Know that your feelings are normal and valid, and that it’s OK to feel whatever you’re feeling,” therapist Gina Delucca said.
Martin Dimitrov via Getty Images
“Know that your feelings are normal and valid, and that it’s OK to feel whatever you’re feeling,” therapist Gina Delucca said.

It’s hard not to be anxious right now given all of the uncertainty and upheaval the novel coronavirus pandemic has brought to our everyday lives.

Worries about contracting the virus, loved ones (especially older people or those with compromised immune systems) getting sick, losing income, figuring out child care, feeling socially isolated or not having enough groceries or other household provisions can be unsettling, to say the least.

Therapists, many of whom are now holding sessions via phone or video calls instead of in person, are working through these concerns and others with their clients. We asked mental health professionals how they’re approaching the anxiety around COVID-19 with their patients. Hopefully their advice will provide some peace of mind during an overwhelming time.

1. Find new ways to connect with co-workers, friends and family.

With many people now working from home, gyms, schools and restaurants closing, and large gatherings postponed, patients are finding it challenging to connect with the people in their lives. Social distancing is imperative to slow the spread of disease, but you can still comply with government recommendations by staying in touch with loved ones virtually.

“Last night, my family connected across 13 states via Zoom, and I can’t tell you how good it was for my soul,” said Nicole O-Pries, a therapist at Virginia Affirming Counseling in Richmond, Virginia. “We have more plans to connect later this week, and I plan to do the same with friends.”

“Connection can lessen anxiety and bring you closer to center,” she added. “Take the time to process and talk. Create a virtual happy hour — mocktails welcome — or game night. Get creative!”

When feelings of isolation are creeping in, marriage and family therapist Lynsie Seely of Wellspace SF in San Francisco tells her patients to mentally reframe “social distancing” as more of a “physical distancing.”

“Just because we might be physically isolated, doesn’t mean we have to be socially isolated,” she said. “Hop on the phone, FaceTime, text, Slack, Google Hangout. We fortunately live in a time where there are many options to choose from to stay connected via technology.”

2. Keep your daily routine as consistent as possible.

Mental health professional Allison Hart is encouraging clients to maintain some level of consistency in their new daily routines.

You might need to make some adjustments (e.g., a YouTube yoga video in your living room instead of your usual class), but find something that works and try to stick to it.

“As much as is possible, keep your same wake-up and bed times, brew your favorite drink in the morning, take a soothing shower, do an at-home workout instead and read a chapter in your favorite book at night,” said Hart, a psychological assistant at WellSpace SF. “These actions seem small, but a little peace and comfort can go a long way.”

3. Focus on what you can control instead of what you can’t.

For patients who are prone to catastrophizing, Rockville, Maryland, psychologist Mary Alvord goes through a series of questions that challenge — and hopefully allay — some of their fears.

“What is the worst-case scenario? How likely is the worst-case scenario? What would you tell a friend going through this?” Alvord said. “What can you control and what can you do about that which you can control? I use these as they are reality checks.”

One thing you have power over: your own self-care and health practices, said Gina Delucca, a clinical psychologist at Wellspace SF. That includes getting rest, eating nutritious foods, staying hydrated, moving your body, washing your hands thoroughly and often, and practicing social distancing. As for things you don’t have control over? Work on learning to accept the unknown and the uneasy feelings that often accompany it.

“Know that your feelings are normal and valid, and that it’s OK to feel whatever you’re feeling,” Delucca said. “Remind yourself that what’s going on is temporary and try to find comfort in knowing that we are all going through these tough times of uncertainty together.”

4. Be extra gentle with yourself.

“When the world is being hard on us for good reason, it can be even easier to be hard on ourselves,” Hart said.

Instead of beating yourself up for not being as productive as you normally might be, practice self-compassion and give yourself a break. You’re doing the best you can in some less-than-ideal circumstances.

“Try to say simple, warm things to yourself every day: ‘Today, I’m giving myself a wider margin of error. I’m going to allow myself to do what I can to go with the flow,’ Or, ‘Saving energy is today’s version of productivity,’” Hart suggested.

Slow down so you can find more appreciation for the simple pleasures in your day-to-day life.

“Be present for the cup of coffee you’re drinking instead of multitasking,” Hart said. “Eat slower and notice how much you enjoy the food you’ve chosen at this moment. When you’re on the phone with a friend, relax on the couch and know that your only job is to connect.”

5. Cut back on your media exposure.

“While most of us want to stay informed, the constant talk about the virus in the news and on social media can be overwhelming and can feed into our fear and anxiety,” Delucca said.

That means setting some parameters around how much news you consume and where you’re getting your updates. Lots of false information has circulated on social media, so it’s best to look to reputable sources, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO) — not your uncle’s fearmongering Facebook posts.

6. Keep things in perspective.

According to the CDC, “for most people, the immediate risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to be low.” That said, it’s still important that you take the recommended precautions to protect more vulnerable populations.

“While there is a lot of scary news out there, try your best to take a deep breath and remind yourself that most people who contract COVID-19 will only experience minor symptoms,” Delucca said.

7. Make sure you have enough of any medications you take.

Caring for your mental health is especially crucial now ― and that includes having an adequate supply of your mental health prescriptions. O-Pries recommends her clients reach out to their doctor and/or pharmacy now to obtain 60 days’ worth, if possible, so they’re not left in the lurch should they need to be quarantined.

We want to make sure that no one is left in a situation without these medications,” she said. “It may take a number of phone calls and persistence, but I can’t stress how important this may be for helping you navigate the weeks ahead.”

8. Know that a little bit of anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Full-on panic in times of distress is unproductive, but a small dose of fear or anxiety can actually be helpful. These emotions, however unpleasant, motivate us to prepare for and protect ourselves against potentially dangerous situations.

“The widespread anxiety in response to COVID-19 is leading us to want to stay informed, avoid certain places and large groups of people to reduce the potential for exposure, be extra vigilant about washing our hands and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and protect our vulnerable populations,” Delucca said.

But when our anxiety levels are too high, it becomes a hindrance.

“When we’re in a panicked state, our thinking can become irrational and our behavior can become impulsive and emotionally reactive,” Delucca said. “Panic can also cause new problems, such as supply shortages and unnecessary medical care. In addition, panic can also create panic in other people, causing a problematic chain reaction.”

To keep anxiety at bay, Delucca recommends relaxation techniques, such as meditation or breathing exercises, moving your body, engaging in a hobby or talking with a dear friend or relative.

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