How to keep anxiety at bay during times of uncertainty

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Jill Newby, Associate Professor, UNSW based at the Black Dog Institute:

These are troubling times. With news of a new virus spreading around the world, and evolving updates of how we should all be protecting ourselves, many Australians are understandably feeling anxious. There are many unknowns about COVID-19.  How quickly the virus will spread? What impact will it have on our communities? How will it affect our families?

But there are helpful actions which can assist in reducing anxiety and help manage COVID-19 fears. As an Associate Professor at UNSW based at the Black Dog Institute, I often help people with their anxieties and fear. This is my advice:

  • Some anxiety can be helpful. If you’re feeling anxious or worried, you’re not alone. Anxiety is normal, and in many cases it can be helpful. Research during past pandemics show that people who worry are more likely to do the things that help to keep the virus at bay, like frequent handwashing.
  • Channel your anxiety into action: get informed, plan, and prepare. We often feel anxious when events feel out of our control, and when we think we don’t have the capacity, skills or ability to cope. Anxiety tricks us into thinking the about the worst-case scenarios in vivid and frightening detail. Instead of worrying, try your best to focus on what’s under your control. Equip yourself with the facts about COVID-19 from trusted sources. Follow government advice and make a plan about what you and your family will do if you need to be in isolation, or quarantine.
  • Limit or avoid unhelpful media and misinformation. Being exposed to constant, alarming, anxiety-inducing stories convinces us that there is something to panic about, and further perpetuates myths, rumours, misinformation, uncertainty and anxiety. The more we read and hear about it, the more frightening it becomes, and the less chance we have to distract ourselves and do things that can take our minds off it. Although it might be tempting to keep informed, or difficult to escape, limiting your exposure to media, news, and social media about coronavirus will help quell the panic.
  • Cut down or stop the behaviours that are fuelling your anxiety. There are certain actions, when performed frequently, that can fuel anxiety about health, and germ-phobia. Focusing too much on bodily symptoms, and relying on ‘Dr Google’, can consume one with anxious thoughts and panic. Being aware of these behaviours, understanding how they’re making you feel, and replacing them with more helpful coping strategies can alleviate disproportionate feelings of anxiety.

Use coping strategies that have helped you in the past when you’ve felt stressed or anxious. Here are some sensible measures, that can help alleviate anxiety.

  • Stay Focused on the here and now, taking each day step by step.
  • Be aware of negative thoughts and don’t give them too much power. Thoughts are thoughts, not necessarily facts.
  • Look after your body: get enough sleep, exercise, eat well, avoid smoking, excessive alcohol and drugs. These will help protect your mental health and immune system.
  • Stay connected with others, so you’re not socially isolated or lonely. It can make a huge difference when we share our worries with others, and connect with other people who are supportive.
  • Help other people, be kind, and compassionate: when we help others, it helps us feel better.

If you’re feeling like you’re not coping, get professional advice, it’s ok to ask for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, seek professional support. Psychological therapies can be done online, or remotely via phone or videoconferencing, and are an excellent option if you’re in self-isolation, or worried about going to a clinic.

Importantly be assured that for most people, the anxiety will be temporary, and will reduce over time, especially once the virus has been contained.

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