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Managing and reducing anxiety during COVID-19

Meera Phull, Clinical Collaboration Lead, Bupa Group Clinical
24 April 2020

The outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) has left many of us feeling unsettled. It’s normal to feel anxious when faced with uncertainty and situations that are beyond our control. For those who already struggle with mental health difficulties, this can be an especially challenging time. Here, I discuss different reasons why people may be feeling more anxious, and ways to manage those worries or thought patterns.

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Worries about health and hygiene

If you already have challenging feelings, beliefs and behaviours around hygiene or becoming ill, the coronavirus pandemic may understandably be making those anxieties worse. Certain things may contribute to heightened worry about your health.

  • Ongoing media coverage of COVID-19.
  • The visibility of masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment.
  • Advice to regularly wash your hands.
  • The uncertainty around how long the pandemic may last.

Some warning signs that you’re having difficulties with anxiety may be:

  • noticing that your thoughts or behaviours are becoming excessive – for example, washing your hands for longer than the recommended 20 seconds
  • washing your hands many times over a short period of time
  • feeling preoccupied with distressing thoughts about catching or passing on the virus
  • spending considerably more time cleaning

Nobody likes feeling anxious, so you might find yourself attempting to control, react negatively to or ignore any anxiety you feel. But this can sometimes result in anxious feelings becoming worse. It can be helpful to take the opposite approach of noticing anxiety and accepting it. I discuss ways to do this in the next couple of sections.

Worries about the future

Anxiety often results in us trying to pre-empt (predict) how threatening situations will unfold and what that means for each of us, personally. This is so we can prepare for them and keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.

While planning ahead can be helpful, if you’re feeling anxious about the future, attempts to ‘problem solve’ may cause further uncertainty and worry. At the moment, many of us have even greater concerns about employment, education, health and finances. It can feel very overwhelming and challenging to have so much uncertainty around us.

One way you can manage worries about the future is to limit how much you watch and follow the news and social media. Too much exposure during this time can have a negative impact on your mood and anxiety levels.

  • Limit yourself to looking at social media at set times of the day, maybe once or twice, or not at all.
  • Be aware that a lot of fake news exists. Don’t believe everything you read, and only use trustworthy sources. Our article on how to fact-check during this time may be useful.
  • Avoid watching the news or looking at social media during the evening. Going to bed with anxious thoughts is likely to affect your sleep and make you feel even worse.

Adjusting to change

Change can be unsettling at the best of times, even when we know that it’s coming and have the opportunity to prepare for it. In a very short space of time, we’ve had to adjust to staying at home, perhaps now working from home (or differently), or have children to entertain and look after 24/7. The pandemic is causing change for everyone, and it can be comforting to know that you’re not alone in your situation.

It can also help to keep perspective during this time. Focus on what you have, rather than what you don’t. Be grateful for the things that make you feel positive – your family, the sunshine, your daily walk or general health.

Tips for reducing anxiety

Rather than trying to fight the feelings of anxiety, it can be helpful to take the opposite approach of noticing the feeling and accepting it. The following exercises may be helpful.

  • Pause to take a few deep breaths. Then name the emotion you’re feeling, accepting that it’s present in this moment, but it will pass. You’ve most likely experienced these feelings before; reflect on past times you’ve felt anxious and remind yourself they won’t last.
  • Write a list of the things on your mind. It can be helpful to organise the thoughts that go around your head and put them on paper. You might find that those thoughts feel less overwhelming in black and white compared to thinking about them in your head.
  • Talk to someone you trust. Connect with family and friends via the phone or video calls. If you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, talk to someone you find to be supportive.
  • Try mindfulness-based practices. Anxiety and worry tend to be linked to things we’re afraid may happen in the future. Being mindful can help to focus our attention on the present moment.
Meera Phull
Meera Phull, Clinical Collaboration Lead, Bupa Group Clinical

    • Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance. GOV.UK. www.gov.uk, last updated 15 April 2020
    • Treanor M, Erisman SM, Salters-Pedneault, et al. Acceptance-based behaviuoral therapy for GAD: effects on outcomes from three theoretical models. Depression and anxiety 2011;28(2):127–136. doi:10.1002/da.20766
    • Gao J, Zheng P, Jia Y, et al. Mental health problems and social media exposure during COVID-19 outbreak. SSRN Electronic Journal 2020. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.3541120

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