How I’m Managing My Anxiety During the Coronavirus Outbreak

It's not easy, but it's working.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
March 13, 2020

Though there has been a lot of focus on the spread of this novel strain of the coronavirus (and rightfully so), all of this talk of pandemics, quarantines, and shortages has had a different effect on public health: making a lot of people really anxious. As someone with generalized anxiety disorder, this whole COVID-19 situation is exacerbating my struggle. And as health journalist and bioethicist, I have to closely follow each development, instead of hiding under my weighted blanket watching “30 Rock” reruns like I want to do. 

I’m fortunate enough to have some wonderful friends who check in on me and ask about my anxiety, and often those calls and texts come with questions about how I’m handling it. My first response to that was, “I’M NOT!!!!” but after thinking about it for a minute, I realized that I have developed some coronavirus-specific coping mechanisms, which I’m happy to share.

A few caveats: I am not a trained mental health professional, so this isn’t advice. Rather, these are a few of the ways I’m making it through this uncertain time without ripping all the skin off my fingers (one of my many charming anxiety-provoked forms of self-soothing). Some of these are also pretty specific to my situation, so not something everyone would be able to do. 

Let’s start by going back to my friends’ check-in calls and texts. When they ask how I’m dealing with my anxiety, it forces me to stop and deliberately think through what is both causing my anxiety, as well as what is keeping my anxiety in check. It’s basically like doing an anxiety workbook. There’s such a pervasive sense of panic in the air right now that it’s easy to get caught up in it without really taking the time to identify what, specifically, about this pandemic is making us anxious and how we calm our dizzying states of anxiety. Yes, that may sound like a ridiculous task — you literally cannot spell “pandemic” without “panic” — but figuring out what’s triggering my anxiety is helpful for finding ways to cope with it.

The first thing that has helped is staying informed about what’s going on. Because this is a virus we’ve never encountered before, we’re learning new things about it every day. Sure, I’ve had hours of World Health Organization briefings on in the background as I’ve worked, but even when the new information isn’t positive (at this point in the pandemic, few things are), simply knowing and understanding what is happening makes me feel more in-control and less anxious. It’s my version of stockpiling toilet paper.

Along the same lines, understanding my role as a citizen during this outbreak has helped me feel as though I have more control over things. I know that frequent 20-second hand washing and staying away from crowds can help stop COVID-19. I’m doing both of those — as well as doing a de facto quarantine, since doing so doesn’t take me off course of my usual working-from-home routine. Because there’s so little the average person can do right now, knowing that I’m doing everything in my (limited) power makes me feel better.

I’ve also been getting another type of phone call: Other friends and family members calling me in a panic asking me if they should be worried. As I walk people through the coronavirus myths versus realities versus what we don’t know yet, being the voice of information and reason for someone else helps reduce my own anxiety in the process. After writing about COVID-19 and doing some bioethics consulting over the past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the outbreak from several different angles. As long as I have all that information in my head, I might as well pass it along to others — especially if that means they’ll worry less.

At this time of uncertainty, it’s taking a little more effort than usual to keep my anxiety at levels that still allow me to function. The key is finding small ways that allow you to feel as though you have at least some control over what’s going on.

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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