Dealing with the Stress of the Pandemic
By: Robert F. Lemert, MD, FACOG
Excessive worry about COVID-19 is becoming a mental health concern. Fears and questions about what the future holds can distract us during the day, keep us up at night, and make it hard to find the motivation or energy to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Anxiety is a natural occurrence that can sometimes be useful. Negative emotions like fear are a normal response to what’s going on in our environment. The key is to channel those emotions to help us act appropriately, rather than getting stuck in cycles of rumination.
What is useful about anxiety in today’s world?
- Fear and anxiety helped our early ancestors survive very real threats. Today our fear response helps us act quickly in the face of modern dangers. An example would be freezing in place instead of stepping into the path of an oncoming speeding car.
- Being in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our anxiety makes us run through different courses of action and identify the best options available to us. This process of thinking can result in successful future planning, but it can also cause chronic worry. These thoughts can be debilitating, distressing, and exhausting.
We see people’s responses to this pandemic range from denial to partying to catastrophizing. What is a reasonable approach to the pandemic?
- In times of uncertainty, our personality traits have a big influence on how we react based on our assumptions about the world and our level of “optimism bias.”Research shows that many of us use subconscious, self-protective assumptions. This helps us to get through life. These assumptions include thinking that the world is a good, safe place, and that bad things happen to other people and not to us. When the probabilities of danger are very low, these assumptions protect us from worry.
- When it comes to the Pandemic, optimism bias can lead us to ignore guidelines on social distancing. We can unknowingly add to the spread of the virus and deaths if we ignore these guidelines. Young people pose this particular risk because they may have little or no symptoms and are especially likely to feel invulnerable. People who have experienced and adapted to bad things happening may adopt the subconscious assumption that taking certain actions can prevent bad things from happening. This explains the panic buying and an uptick in gun purchases. People are just trying to gain a sense of control over the situation which makes them feel safe. If I told you the person next to you at a restaurant had a 1 in 10,000 chance of having COVID-19, you might respond very differently than if I said the risk was 1 in 1,000, 1 in 100, or even 1 in 10. Currently, we don’t know how to respond to risk, because the probability of exposure to the virus is rapidly changing.
How should we communicate this pandemic and its dangers to our children?
- Children may possess the most extreme models of the world as being a safe, controllable place. Those models are reinforced by adults who are trying to shield them from the worst of the world. If children’s models of the world as a safe place are suddenly disturbed, they may suffer anxiety or stress reactions. In our current times, we need to help them adjust gently. Maybe we can tell them we are staying at home more because there is a new bug that can make old people quite sick, so we don’t want to risk spreading it to them. It also helps to give age-appropriate answers and reassurance. For example, you can tell them that children don’t seem to get very sick from it.
What’s the best way to stop catastrophizing?
- Humanity is resilient. In the last century, we have survived 2 world wars and improved a quality of life globally that has never been seen before. Governments are busy putting in place measures to assist people financially. From day to day, try to stay as positive as you can. Remember to spend time with loved ones. Have long talks on the phone with family and older relatives. The current situation gives us the opportunity to focus more quality time even if it’s virtually with those we care about.
How can we work to channel our anxiety in productive ways?
- When you are empathetic and think of others, you often find you stop worrying about yourself. First and foremost, please follow all of the social distancing advisories released in your area. Your safety measures show your respect for others. Make a special effort to reach out to those living alone, especially those who suffer from depression and anxiety. Try to keep reaching out. This will help you feel better. It is important at this time to realize the need for people to be altruistic and think of those most vulnerable. Also look out for the signs or symptoms of depression in yourself and others.
- It is important to make solid plans about how to get through the following weeks and months. This will keep you from letting your mind wander about all the possible things that might happen. The following are some ways to control anxiety while under social distancing orders in the coming weeks or months:
-Stock up on food and medical supplies in a calm, measured way without panic buying and hoarding.
-Think about what you enjoy doing around the house and carve out time for those activities.
-Take a relaxing bath.
-Make time for some exercise each day.
-If you have children, play or read with them and arrange online play dates.
Watch out for signs of stress in yourself. Stay in frequent contact with friends and family through your digital devices or social media channels. Take breaks from electronic devices to play board games, cards, or other games with those in your household. Limit how often you watch the news or follow social media. Make exercise, a healthy diet, and sleep a priority.
Listed below are some great references on stress relief. For additional help, support or to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, give us a call at 407-566-BABY (2229).