COVID-19 & Anxiety

written by Tiffany Merchant, MS, LPC

The safer-at-home order has ended and many questions have begun to enter our mind and daily conversations. It seems that just as the world was beginning to settle into the “new normal” life is changing yet again. When the routines and rules that we live by  shift, there can be a significant sense of uncertainty and this uncertainty can lead to anxiety. 

Anxiety does not have a one size fits all definition. There are varying degrees of anxiety that present in significantly different ways. However, there are common threads that lead mental health professionals to a formal diagnosis including overthinking, excessive worry with the inability to stop the worry, and difficulty “turning off” the brain. It is also common for someone living with anxiety to experience physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms, shaking, and being restless. 

These thoughts and behaviors are connected to a well-known response called fight, flight, or freeze. This response serves an important purpose in self-preservation. When the brain detects a threat to its existence, the brain signals the body to either defend itself, run away, or be very still. For example, if you are camping and come upon a bear, you want your brain to feel like it is in grave danger! However, when a person is exposed to prolonged stress or trauma, the brain can interpret certain harmless stimuli as harmful and causes the body to respond as if it were in significant danger. 

This is especially relevant with prolonged exposure to the news or social media concerning COVID-19, as it could cause elevated stress levels over an extended period of time. Your brain could then interpret any exposure to information about COVID-19 as harmful, in turn, causing anxiety. 

Dr. Bruce Perry’s extensive research shows that one contributor to an increased stress level is “novelty” or anything new. With COVID-19, something changing everyday, so it is no surprise that more people are likely experiencing an increase in anxiety symptoms. If you have noticed that you are having difficulty “turning off your brain” or are restless, here are some practical suggestions that you might try: 

  • Meditation – There are numerous free apps that can be downloaded onto your phone as well as many YouTube videos that can guide you. Here is a link to a 5 minute meditation on YouTube.
  • Deep Breathing – Deep breathing helps to direct your focus on the present. Take a look at this article for step by step instructions on how to practice deep breathing.
  • Exercise – Getting your body moving (taking a walk, using your home gym, hiking, or playing catch with your children) is one of the easiest ways to manage stress in your body. 
  • Daily Structure and Routine – Keeping our routines make things predictable, and safe for us. 

Some anxiety is necessary and helpful to protect us against danger. When it begins to interfere with a person’s daily functioning, it can be problematic. If you find yourself having difficulty performing daily tasks that were previously common and easy to perform or endless ruminating or catastrophic thinking (IE: thinking the worst frequently)it might be time to seek a therapist’s assistance. Stein Counseling is open and taking new clients and can help you process these thoughts and feelings, and assist you in coping more effectively with the changes we face everyday, or in times of stress. To schedule an appointment call 608-785-7000 x 221.