Coronavirus anxiety is running so high, all my therapy patients want help coping

A nurse walked into her session with me and said hospitals are overflowing with fearful individuals. She asked, 'Can’t you do something about all these anxious people?'
Illustration of figure looking downward while the coronavirus surrounds them.
It can be beneficial to express our fears and seek reassurance, but an echo chamber of unchecked anxiety is a recipe for disaster.Abbey Lossing / for NBC News
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By Maggie Mulqueen, psychologist

One of my patients, a nurse, walked into her therapy session on Monday and implored me to “get these people out of my emergency room.” She was clearly worn out from the increased volume of individuals visiting the hospital out of fear they have the coronavirus, and worried that overall patient care would suffer as a result. “Can’t you do something about all these anxious people?”

The anxious are no less likely to suffer the consequences of an outbreak. In fact, if we let ourselves get run ragged by our anxiety, we will be less able to manage what is yet to come.

Her question was a joke, but her point was spot on. At this moment, we don’t know what we’re fighting or where to run to avoid it. It’s on the minds of everyone I know, and is at the center of conversation with my patients over the past few weeks. As a psychologist, I don’t have answers, and I certainly can’t provide guarantees. But I do know that suffering with anxiety will contribute to a poor outcome, and I can offer some suggestions about how to keep fears in check. Is there a need to stay aware and prepare for the spread of coronavirus? Absolutely. Should we educate ourselves? Definitely. But anxiety does not inherently make us better prepared.

The anxious are no less likely to suffer the consequences of an outbreak. In fact, if we let ourselves get run ragged by our anxiety, we will be less able to manage what is yet to come. Anxiety wears us out physically and mentally. It taxes our immune system by disrupting our sleep and eating patterns. We fixate on what is worrying us, which impedes our ability to pay attention to other matters. And feeling anxious exacerbates symptoms, which can lead to overreaction.

Part of what is so confusing right now is the question of whether we are facing an acute or a chronic situation. Not knowing how long to plan for potential disruption to our lives is much harder than working within set time limits. As of now, we don’t have any sense of how long we will be in the grips of this virus. Given that, all of us are absorbing some level of anxiety about this new pathogen.

It is imperative not to become paralyzed. In addition to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to help avoid contracting or spreading the virus, we need to address the psychological toll of living in such an uncertain time. There are some basic measures people can take to manage their anxiety.

To begin with, limiting the intake of news helps. One of my patients is glued to his television set, hoping to learn something that will reassure him. But anxiety leads to distorted thinking, so he overemphasizes the negative information he sees and thus feels worse. My recommendation is to rely, at the most, on one or two trustworthy sources of information and check them no more than twice a day. If there is a true emergency, government robocalls or alerts on your cellphone will find you. No one has the answer at this point about how far and wide the virus will spread, so constant searching, scrolling or consumption of sensationalist cable news reporting will only make you feel more afraid.

Isolation also feeds anxiety, so rather than texting family and friends, it’s better to pick up the phone and talk to people. Hearing the voices of loved ones and sharing a moment of laughter makes for a much stronger connection than a text. Another patient of mine, a single woman in her 40s, is focused on how she will manage if she’s quarantined. She has family in the area and is debating whether to stay with them so she won’t be alone. I encouraged her to speak with them directly, which would be more comforting and also help her make the right tradeoffs between taking extra precautions and unnecessarily disrupting her life.

One of the strongest mitigators against anxiety is physical exercise. Walking outdoors and being in nature is an effective way to reduce symptoms. A patient of mine who has young children has instituted “dance parties” when she comes home in the evening. She pushes back all the living room furniture, puts on music, and she and her children dance for half an hour. The family feels more relaxed at dinner and she is better able to be present for her children. She intends to continue this practice long after the coronavirus has been resolved.

Another key ingredient to well-being is having a sense of purpose. Offer to help those less able, walk someone’s dog or identify a way to volunteer in your community. Take comfort in knowing there will be reciprocity if needed. Asking for help is much easier if you know each other’s names. Instinctively we may prefer to stay away from other people at this time, but finding ways to be of use, rather than isolated, is an antidote to being self-focused. People who are at higher risk for a severe response to the virus need our help, not shunning.

Exercising control over our own environment can also alleviate feeling helpless. Unfortunately, the messaging from the government about what it means to be prepared is unclear. As one patient said, “If the masks aren’t supposed to help, why are they telling us not to buy them so there will be enough for first responders?” But it’s never a bad idea to have gas in the car, some cash on hand, nonperishable food in the pantry and be up to date with your medications.

Procrastination, on the other hand, feeds anxiety. By having a long to-do list, there’s more to worry about, which can lead to paralysis. A man in my practice who always files his taxes at the last minute is doggedly working to get them in early this year for fear he could get sick. Focusing on accomplishing this task has lowered his anxiety because he feels productive.

It can be beneficial to express our fears and seek reassurance when we are faced with the unknown, but an echo chamber of unchecked anxiety is a recipe for disaster. We don’t need people unnecessarily going to the hospital or emptying shelves and hoarding supplies. There is a truism in psychology: Anxious people can’t listen. This means they are less likely to make reasonable, informed decisions, which affects not only themselves but others in their circle. If we can lower our anxiety, our ability to listen will improve. Then we can make better decisions, together.