To say we are living in unprecedented times would be nothing short of an understatement. As the world continues to cope with the ongoing Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and mourn the tremendous loss of life, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed at the scope of it all.
As of late April 2020, the United States alone had over a million confirmed Coronavirus cases and millions more have had to file for unemployment due to businesses shuttering and stay-at-home orders. That information alone would give most anyone a feeling of concern, but for people who live with anxiety, the non-stop cycle of news, along with the fear of contracting Coronavirus and/or feeling “trapped” can trigger anxiety and/or panic attacks.
To get a better understanding of why so many of us are feeling (and responding) the way we are, as well as how to cope, we spoke to mental health experts regarding Coronavirus-related anxiety and panic.
What are Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks?
Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are often used interchangeably, but they do, in fact, have different definitions, explains the author of Stop Anxiety from Stopping You: The Breakthrough Program For Conquering Panic and Social Anxiety, clinical psychologist Helen Odessky, Ph.D.
An anxiety attack, Dr. Odessky explains, “is a way to describe a strong emotion of dread, or negative apprehension.” A panic attack, on the other hand, is “a cluster of symptoms that is precipitated by a strong surge in adrenaline and is mostly experienced as a physical sensation.”
These physical symptoms, Dr. Odessky says, can include a strong rush of physical energy, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, feeling lightheaded, and “a subjective sense that you may be losing a grip on reality or an outright fear that you feel like you are about to die.”
Either of these kinds of attacks can, understandably, feel extremely frightening to the person going through them, especially if they have an undiagnosed panic or anxiety disorder. Managing anxiety and panic can start by understanding these various symptoms and acknowledging they are happening.
Dealing with Panic and Anxiety Attacks During Coronavirus
Even during the most “normal” of circumstances, panic and anxiety attacks can be upsetting and disruptive, but during Coronavirus they can feel especially amplified.
Though our lives are anything but normal right now, creating structure can be extremely beneficial to those who have panic and anxiety. Dr. Odessky says you can do this by fitting in your daily responsibilities (working remotely, teaching your children, etc.) as well as taking care of your emotional, physical, and mental health needs. This includes things like trying to keep a regular sleep cycle, eating balanced meals and doing fun things that give you a sense of accomplishment (your summer beach read can start right this moment).
For those who have a history of anxiety attacks and/or panic attacks, psychotherapist Donna Schwartz, LICSW, recommends having a “toolbox” ready to manage the disorder. For instance, if you are calmed by ocean sounds, add listening to your sound machine to your daily routine.
Schwartz also suggests trying things like doing yoga, taking your dog for a walk (don’t forget that mask), and planning Zoom calls with friends and loved ones. The latter can be especially helpful, as Schwartz notes, “It is important for people to know who they can call to talk about their feelings and for their support system to let them know that everything is going to be okay.”
Speaking of important people to talk to: if you have a therapist and have the ability to have calls or video meetings with them (most are offering these services), it’s vital to keep these appointments. Your therapist can assess and guide you through your symptoms, as well as establish or alter your treatment plan, as directed. If you need prescriptions, there are options such as delivery and/or drive-thru at your pharmacy to abide by contact limits.
If you don’t have a therapist, but think now may be the time for you to start seeing one virtually, cognitive behavioral therapists may be the right choice. Because, at the end of the day, “the best technique for you [for coping] will be the one crafted with the help of a mental health professional trained to treat panic and anxiety-related disorders,” says psychologist Chantea Williams, Ph.D.
Your therapist’s stress management techniques for coping with anxiety/panic attacks may include mindfulness activities, such as breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and self-compassion practices.
What to Avoid
Though all of the professionals we spoke to recommended limiting news and screen time (excessive news watching or Twitter scrolling can be triggering), you shouldn’t avoid the news altogether.
As Dr. Odessky points out, “We do need to stay informed…checking the news once a day is more than enough for most of us.” She suggests getting your Coronavirus news from reputable sources only, such as the CDC.
While it may be tempting to reach for a glass of wine or make an after-work cocktail, too much alcohol consumption can make things so much worse. Schwartz points out that alcohol not only increases the likelihood of anxiety and an attack, but it can also impact your ability to focus and concentrate, which can mess with your “toolkit.” In other words, limited alcohol is extremely important.
What to Keep in Mind
These are scary and uncertain times, there is no doubt about that. But even accepting that very fact will help you out. Dr. Odessky says that understanding that things are unpredictable can actually make coping a little easier. When you acknowledge this situation, “We can be realistic and adjust our expectations.”
Dr. Odessky continues, “Many things will feel different and we will have to continue to adjust…. Focus on concrete actions and decide to welcome uncertainty in areas where you legitimately don’t have a choice.” By adopting a more flexible mindset and telling yourself you can and will get through this time, it takes the pressure off “to have a perfect solution or do things flawlessly.”
Another important thing to keep in mind is that while we may be physically and socially isolated, you’re not in this alone. In fact, that may just bring you closer to everyone else in your life who is feeling the same way.
As Dr. Williams puts it, “The uncertainty is a shared experience by many around you. Think of the effective coping strategies that helped when you felt uncertainty in past situations. Be kind to yourself and others during this time, and do the best that you can.”
However, Dr. Odessky says this if you are feeling housebound or that your anxiety and panic symptoms are getting worse with time, it’s important to reach out for help.