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Anxiety in a time of COVID Part 1: The Perfect Storm for Anyone with Anxiety

Are you wondering why so many people who don’t have COVID-19, or even know anyone who has been diagnosed are seeing a spike in feelings of anxiety? It’s not just because of the many changes in our communities and around the world since the pandemic began: over 26 million Americans were out of work, K-12 schools and universities nationwide closed overnight and many of us spent weeks or months inside our homes and yards not socializing. However,change and stress are not the main sources that fuel anxiety, they are simply kindling. The real lighter fluid and gasoline is UNCERTAINTY.

When is school going to start back up? What is that going to be like? Will students really wear a mask all day?
How long until we REALLY know how this disease affects people?
What if someone I care about gets COVID-19 and dies?
What if I test positive for COVID-19 and have to stay home for 14 days?

All of these are valid concerns and questions. It is normal to feel some anxiety in new situations,like starting a new school year, a new job, moving to a new place or living through a worldwide pandemic for the first time. Uncertainty lies underneath all of these situations and questions. We often think, “If I have answers and information I can be prepared, and my anxiety will calm down.” It might, for like a minute. But that doesn’t prevent uncertainty popping up in other areas of our life, on a regular basis. (More on that in my next post).

Anxiety serves a very important function of protecting us. It’s the feeling that tells us we should put our seat belt on when we get into a car or wash our hands after touching common surfaces in public.

However, for some of us, anxiety has too much power and control in our lives. It acts as a bossy, know-it-all alarm and yells loudly about horrible, scary things that could (but are not likely to) happen and that is when it becomes problematic. It often starts with one worry or concern and quickly spirals into 10 worries or more. Remember, ANXIETY LOVES UNCERTAINTY. It feeds on it and grows exponentially like Mentos dropped in a Coke bottle:

“What if people don’t wear masks and I get sick? What if I spread it to my sweet old neighbor (who I have never talked to or met) who walks her dog and she dies and its my fault? What if all my friends get COVID-19 from me and then they don’t want to be my friend anymore? Who am I going to sit with at lunch? What if we don’t ever go back to school?!!! How am I going to get into college and get a good job? What if this pandemic never ends…?” And on and on it spirals.

Anxious thoughts often have a small grain of truth in them and frequently center around a possible, but unlikely, scenario or chain of events.

So, what can we do to handle so much uncertainty in our lives and manage out of control anxiety? It starts with externalizing the anxious thoughts and worry, (it’s not you, it’s the anxiety that hangs out with you) predicting when it will show up and creating phrases to say back to and refute the worry.

Example: “Listen anxiety, I knew you were going to show up when I went to school today, but none of the bad things you predict EVER happen. I don’t need you right now, you can go away.”

When we predict the anxiety, we won’t feel blindsided by it and we already know it’s anxiety overreacting. In my next post, I will go into more detail about how to access the resources within ourselves we all have to manage bossy, know-it-all anxious thoughts and retrain our brain to be more helpful and accurate instead of a Chicken Little alarm clock.

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