Anxious? Here's Why Your Pre-Pandemic Coping Strategies Aren't Working

Coronavirus is causing an explosion of unruly anxiety nationwide, affecting even the calmest of people. Here's how to deal.

Mediation Anxiety COVID Coping
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Real talk: Many of us had plenty of anxieties to fill the day before a pandemic descended upon us and shattered any sense of safety and security. Now, we have new things to worry about — and fewer ways to cope with them.

With everything in question, from your health to your job to your family’s safety to when the hell it’s all going to end, there’s enough to make even a Zen master sweat. But understanding what makes anxiety about the coronavirus different from your usual troubles is the first step to reining in the worry. Next? Try our 10 sure-fire ways to get through the pandemic stronger than you started.

What’s really changed?

"There's definitely been a rise in levels of stress, anxiety, and worry. They're on a spectrum from mild worries to severe clinical anxiety, but everyone is feeling the effects of all the change and unknown this pandemic is causing," says psychologist Navya Singh, PsyD, adjunct research scientist at Columbia University and founder of mental health start-up, wayForward.

There are a lot of reasons why COVID-19 is prompting a mental contagion: For starters, people tend to feel more anxious when the unknown has to do with their physical health — it’s primal, Dr. Singh says. Plus, change is a huge trigger for stress and worry, and pretty much everything about our daily routine is different than we're used to.

Most of all, anxiety, by definition, is worry and tension over something that might happen in the future and is driven by recurrent intrusive thoughts or concerns, according to the American Psychological Association. The unknowns and lack of certainty related to COVID-19, as well as the incessant conversation and media coverage over it, make the pandemic the Anxiety Express.

Jen B, a 36-year old living in Chicago, has suffered from generalized anxiety for nearly 20 years and panic attack disorder for roughly 15. The coronavirus is now causing panic attacks daily, sometimes multiple times a day. "I feel most anxious about getting sick myself — my anxiety is partially hypochondria-driven to start — and about my parents getting ill because they're both high risk," she told InStyle.

In fact, it's become a common experience to mistake the key symptoms of panic attacks — trouble breathing and chest tightness — for COVID-19.

Jen isn’t alone: Anxiety already affects nearly 1 in 5 Americans, but pretty much every psychologist we talked to said that number is exploding amid the coronavirus pandemic. The non-profit Mental Health America reportsthey've seen a 12 to 19% increase in screening for generalized anxiety disorder since February.

Bottom line: Many people are now feeling anxious to some extent because nothing like this has ever happened before and there’s still so much uncertainty about how it will play out, adds Dr. Singh.

Even people who have never had much anxiety themselves are feeling, if nothing else, the reverberations of everyone around them being on edge: "I'm finding that the 24/7 nature of sheltering in place with other people who are highly anxious and who are used to me ‘making things okay’ is taxing my standard ability to let everything just roll off of me," says Crystal R., a 48-year-old professional counselor in L.A.

Why your go-to coping strategies aren’t working

People who deal with anxiety regularly have their tried-and-true ways to deal. But we are all living in a totally new environment: “Coping strategies that people may have used in the past to successfully navigate stressful experiences may not work the same way now,” says Shevaun Neupert, Ph.D., professor of psychology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

That’s because most of us turn to external coping mechanisms — support you get from outside yourself, like meeting friends for brunch, going to run club, sharing on social media, escaping via TV.

Jen B. says she usually deals with her anxiety by going to the gym and hanging out with her mom — but both those are both off the table. And the isolation alternatives just don’t have the same effect: Jen says she's been having trouble committing to home workouts, especially with her partner at home too, unintentionally making her self-conscious while she sweats on a mat in the living room. And even though FaceTime is a god-send right now, studies show talking through a phone doesn’t have the same effect — specifically, reducing levels of the stress hormone, cortisol — as being able to hug someone mid-conversation does.

The other problem: People new to the feeling who didn’t deal with anxiety before coronavirus are struggling because they’ve never had to make a list of things that soothe them. Crystal adds that, thanks to her counseling psychology training, she is normally able to just acknowledge and release negative thoughts, but without experience working through anxiety, she's struggling to find ways to cope.

Okay, so what will work?

“Having tools to cope with the feelings arising now, as well as when we’re potentially still dealing with the pandemic months from now, can help people regain a sense of control,” says Dr. Singh.

With external coping resources limited, now’s the time to develop more internal coping strategies, or supports that come from within, she says.

Here, 10 strategies both real women and psychologists say can help curb anxiety over the coronavirus:

1. Create a new routine.

If you’re now working from home or out of work, adapt as much structure from your pre-quarantine life into your new one. If you normally listen to podcasts on your commute, put one on while you make breakfast at home. Designate a daily lunch break. Work out at the same time every day. Cook dinner every night. “Routine is how we maintain normalcy and a sense of control,” Dr. Singh says.

2. Practice mindfulness.

Practicing mindful meditation is super effective at lowering anxiety, depression, and pain, according to a huge 2014 study analysis in JAMA Internal Medicine. If you’ve been interested in meditation for a while, now’s a great time to go full in — a lot of guided apps are offering free trials and many, like uber-popular Headspace, have launched series specific to coronavirus worries. But if that sounds daunting, there are tons of small ways to practice being more mindful, like handwriting a letter, going for a walk, or dancing alone.

3. Plan ahead — but take problems as they come.

While you’re focusing on being more mindful, try to plan ahead more, too. It’s called proactive coping, and a new study from Dr. Neupert's team found people who plan ahead both mentally and physically and are able to stay mindful on a day-to-day basis are the best at weathering daily stress.

Look ahead and take action against the problems you know could come — make a plan for if a family member gets sick and needs to self-quarantine, decide how you can best allocate your upcoming stimulus checks, write out your workout routine for the next week. Then, practice mindfulness for issues that arise with time. The combination helps you minimize the amount of future problems, but stay calm and find solutions to ones that inevitably crop-up every day, Dr. Neupert explains.

4. Take a mental vacation.

Closing your eyes and transporting yourself to another place is a strong defense against anxiety — and disappointment, if you’re one of the many who had to cancel an exciting trip thanks to the pandemic, Dr. Singh says. That’s because visualization helps calm your nervous system, balance your mind, and practice mindfulness.

Try it: Close your eyes and take 5 breaths in, 7 breaths out, breathing from your diaphragm. Imagine a place that has brought you positive feelings in the past. Imagine what it looks like, smells like, feels like against your skin. Keep breathing. Practice for at least 5 minutes, Dr. Singh says.

Take the experience one step further and recreate a vacation in your living room, Dr. Singh suggests. Set up a tent in the house and roast marshmallows over the stove with a campfire on your TV; play ocean sounds through your speakers and sip margaritas in a bikini; set up a full birthday party with whatever decorations you have on hand and then FaceTime your friends for the celebration. “Giving yourself something to look forward to and creating an environment that allows you to mentally escape your shelter-in-place keeps the positive thoughts and hormones flowing,” Dr. Singh adds.

5. Spend time in the kitchen.

If your friends’ posts about sourdough starters and Chrissy Tiegan's guide to perfectly pan searing fish haven't already gotten to you, consider taking up a culinary hobby. Rachel D., 26 and living in Boston, says she’s been cooking and baking daily to deal with being cooped up and her husband’s COVID-related job loss. “It’s provided me with a creative outlet and lets me focus on something other than the virus or work.” Dr. Singh approves, adding that the hobby can be a great exercise to practice mindfulness and feel like you have control over your health.

6. Consciously disconnect.

Ayana L, a 26-year-old in Tampa, has found that the biggest help for her COVID-19 anxiety is limiting time on Twitter. "I find myself panicking if I'm consuming too much news," she says.

That’s because obsessing over something you can’t control just reinforces the feeling of helplessness. Even if it’s not corona-related news, the constant reminder that life is different now on social media can contribute to anxiety, Dr. Singh points out. She recommends designating 20 minutes, three times a day to catch up on the news (that goes for both the New York Times as well as Instagram), and otherwise, staying off the platforms.

7. Implement coronavirus-free conversation.

It’s important to check in with how friends and family are doing, but COVID-19 is quick to dominate the dinner table or FaceTime. “We can’t control what’s happening in the world, but we can control the conversation we have with someone,” Dr. Singh points out. At the beginning of every call or chat, designate five minutes for COVID-19 related updates, then move on to other topics.

8. Try an at-home workout.

“Exercise releases certain hormones in your body and down regulates your sympathetic nervous system to help you feel calmer,” Dr. Singh shares. We know — jumping and sweating in your tiny apartment with your partner judging every cardio dance move you do, kids running around, and no teacher to tell you you can do it... it’s not the most motivating of environments. But considering nearly every woman we spoke to (along with a whole lot of scientific research) said exercise traditionally helps their anxiety, it’s worth it to find a way to sweat outside the gym. And with trainers offering free trials for their programs and live workouts on Instagram, now’s the best time to experiment and find something you really love.

9. Find volunteering opportunities.

Most communities are asking for help, whether it’s sewing masks for healthcare workers, dropping groceries off outside the homes of high-risk neighbors, or calling isolated elderly to check on their mental health. “It’s very easy to lose any sense of having control in a pandemic, but taking action in some way can help give us back the agency that combats that feeling of helplessness,” Dr. Singh says. Check out your state or city website to see what COVID-19 volunteer opportunities are needed most.

10. Seek virtual help.

If you’re struggling to deal with the worries the pandemic has brought up — or any concerns in life, for that matter — consider talking to a professional. One upside of worldwide isolation is healthcare services, including those for mental health, are stepping up to support you at home: It’s easier now more than ever to talk to a support community, counselor, or therapist, Dr. Singh says.

Services like Talkspace and BetterHelp offer appointments with licensed professionals for a fee (usually starting between $40 and $65), but companies like Sanvello (which is community-based) are offering free access to their tele-mental health care, most university health services are moving counseling online, and more insurance companies are covering virtual appointments across the board, including mental health.

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.

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