In addition to an increase in the prevalence of depression, as discussed in our previous blog post, mental health professionals have also seen an increase in the prevalence of anxiety since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Americans have reported that their anxiety symptoms have been significantly worse over the last year. With change on the horizon due to recent vaccine rollouts and lifted restrictions, you may find that your anxious feelings continue, or even worsen. As the future of the pandemic remains uncertain, it is normal to experience some anxiety. This is our bodies’ natural response to stress.  However, sometimes we let our anxious thoughts take over, interfering with our day-to-day functioning and well-being. So, how does COVID-19 affect anxiety? And how can you manage your anxiety about COVID-19 when it seems like you’ve lost all control?

COVID-19 and Anxiety

Many of the effects of COVID-19 that we have seen and experienced are also triggers for anxiety. During the past 18 months we have been exposed to compounding stressors that have created a continuous anxious response in many of us. We have all experienced at least one if not more of the  primary triggers below:

Negative Life Events: The stress that we experience from situations such as, financial instability, job loss, sickness, death of a loved one, or trauma, can be overbearing and leave us feeling hopeless. These types of events are all triggers for anxiety. As if a global pandemic isn’t triggering enough, many of us have also experienced several of these other anxiety-producing situations at the same time.

Feeling a Loss of Control: We like to have a firm hold on the reins of our lives. It gives us a sense of stability and makes us feel safe. When we experience significant life stressors like the ones mentioned above, our feelings of security are replaced with feelings of uneasiness or restlessness. Our thoughts start to spiral toward all the “what ifs” and we feel like we’ve lost complete control over our lives. This is especially true in relation to the lack of control we feel with regard to progression of the pandemic and the restrictions that remain or are no longer in place.

Self-care is Harder to Maintain: When we feel so overwhelmed by the stress of difficult situations, it is hard to make time for self-care. This is because we give so much of our energy and thought to these stressors that we’re too tired to engage in healthy practices. Unfortunately, these are the times when we need it the most, as self-care activities often alleviate our anxious feelings. 

Loneliness: Most of us have probably experienced loneliness at some point during the pandemic due to social distancing. Spending time with others tends to be a protective factor against anxiety. When we aren’t able to get the social contact we need to take our minds off stressful situations, it’s easier to allow our anxious feelings to take over. 

Getting COVID-19: This one may be the most obvious trigger for anxiety during the pandemic. The ongoing fear of ourselves or a loved one testing positive for COVID-19 can lead to the onset or worsening of anxiety symptoms. Fortunately, for many, receiving the vaccine has relieved their anxious feelings. However, the vaccine has also been an additional source of anxiety for those who are apprehensive about taking it. 

How Can You Cope with Anxiety as the Pandemic Improves?

Focus on the Things You Can Control: Do you feel anxious that some people and states are moving too fast to get back to normal life as the pandemic improves? On the other hand, maybe you feel like things aren’t moving fast enough and this makes you anxious. Instead of getting caught up in the aspects of the pandemic you can’t control, such as the actions of others, focus your energy and attention on what you can control and doing what’s best for you, like establishing a daily routine, getting enough sleep, eating healthy, or engaging in self-care. 

Challenge Your Thoughts:  We are in challenging times right now with our thoughts – the rules of what has been considered “safe” have begun to change. As this continues to happen, we will need to reassess our assumptions, beliefs, and patterns, to ensure we aren’t allowing anxiety to dominate our choices. It can be easy to allow our negative thoughts to take over when so much is changing around us. It’s still important that we learn to recognize common thought distortions, such as polarized thinking, filtering, overgeneralizations, jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing, ‘should’ statements, or emotional reasoning. When you recognize a distorted thought, stop and ask yourself, “Is this accurate?” Think about how you would respond if a friend spoke to themself that way. Consider other possible outcomes.

Practice Self-Compassion: Maybe you’ve adjusted to pandemic life and you don’t feel ready or eager to go back to the way things were as restrictions are being lifted. Are you ashamed to not be excited about reentering a world that still doesn’t feel safe to you? Maybe you’re so eager for things to go back to normal that you’re trying to do too much at once and you feel overwhelmed. Do you feel guilty because it’s now harder to juggle all of the things that you did pre-pandemic? Have some grace for yourself because times are different! Focus on doing a few of the things that make you feel more like yourself! Take time for you and go at your own pace. 

Limit News Consumption:  It can be tempting to keep a close watch on the news for pandemic updates, but frequent consumption can worsen anxiety by reminding us of all the things we can’t control or leaving us frustrated that pandemic restrictions are not moving at our ideal pace. Be sure to give yourself some space from the news, especially around bedtime.

Practice Gratitude and Mindfulness: Reminding yourself of things you are grateful for on a regular basis can be a great way to relieve some of your anxious feelings. Perhaps you’re feeling grateful for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine or being able to see loved ones you haven’t seen in a while. Consider keeping a gratitude journal. Mindfulness is another great way to cope with anxiety. It teaches us how to respond to our stress with awareness of what is happening in the present moment.

See a Therapist: Don’t be afraid to seek help! Your anxious feelings are valid and you are not alone in your pandemic-related anxiety. Our team of licensed therapists are familiar with the ways in which the changes surrounding COVID-19 can bring about or worsen anxiety. We are here to help you develop coping skills and show you how to use your inner strengths to manage your anxiety. We are still offering both virtual and in-person appointments in case you are anxious about meeting in-person or navigating telehealth!