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Seven Ways to Cope With Anxiety During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Uncertainty and fear are major triggers. Here's how to cope

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You head to your local grocery store and the shelves are empty of canned and frozen foods. Your usual social activities have been canceled, and the news is a constant stream of alarming stories about how the spreading coronavirus is upending life as we know it. Add to that the fact that older adults are particularly vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and you have a perfect storm for anxiety.

"This has been a big anxiety trigger for a lot of people,” says Stewart Shankman, chief psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University, of the coronavirus outbreak. But he and other mental health experts note that it's important to learn how to handle anxious thoughts, and get help if necessary — in part because anxiety can impede the body's ability to fight infection.

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"Anxiety suppresses the immune system,” says Jane Timmons-Mitchell, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. “So anything we can do to not be anxious is helpful."

These ideas from the experts may help keep your anxiety under control.

Limit news consumption

It's important to know the facts and what you can do to protect yourself and to take all precautions — but it's not going to help stress levels to obsessively watch the news, says Shankman.

"The biggest source of anxiety is uncertainty,” he says, “not knowing what's going to happen, when it's going to happen, how long this is going to last. And we don't know. So, trying to know, trying to resolve that uncertainty, is counterproductive. It's going to make you more anxious.”

Shankman says that he's not suggesting denial.

Rather, it's “sort of accepting this is the current situation and not letting it interfere with your life."

Practice calming techniques

Different people relax in different ways, but if you feel particularly anxious you might try deep breathing, taking a warm bath, or sitting with your pet, says Neda Gould, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medical School. “Alternatively, try mindfulness: bringing attention to the experience and kind of allowing it to be there, and not judging it and knowing that it will pass.” If you need mindful or meditative guidance, try free apps such as Calm; Breethe; UCLA Mindful, an app developed by the University of California, Los Angeles, Mindful Awareness Research Center; and Mindfulness Coach, from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"If people are able to just do a little bit of exercise, just walk around or stretch — just to sort of calm the tension in your body,” it will help, says Shankman. “If you calm the tension in your body, you calm the tension in your mind.”

Connect with loved ones

Call, email or videochat with family members, especially if you are feeling isolated or you know that they are. You may find that they have more time to talk than they usually do because so many people are home from school and work, Timmons-Mitchell points out. “There might be some grandchildren that you don't get to communicate with a lot, but now maybe they could because those people aren't as busy."

Listen to music, find activities that bring joy

With symphonies, opera houses, ballets and theaters shutting down or losing their audiences to quarantine measures, many are bringing their offerings online: The Berlin Philharmonic, for instance, gave a free livestreamed concert on March 12, while playing to an empty concert hall; it's offering free access to its archived concerts through March 31. The Philadelphia Orchestra is offering its recent live performance of “BeethovenNOW: Symphonies 5 & 6” online, as well. “Watching a concert like that is going to help somebody feel better, and probably less anxious,” says Timmons-Mitchell.

Get stuff done

Tackle a hobby you've wanted to explore, or a project you never seem to have time for. Maybe you have some watercolor painting supplies in a closet, or a big box of old photos that you've been meaning to transform into a keepsake album. Accomplishing tasks such as cleaning clothes closets or garages can be rewarding, while diverting your attention from anxious thoughts.

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Find ways to laugh

Humor is a wonderful coping mechanism in times of crisis. Turn to sources you find funny, whether they're movies or TV shows, or certain friends whom you know will brighten your mood.

If you feel like your anxiety is getting extreme, interfering with your daily functioning, for example, ask for help. Reach out to your doctor, and a trusted confidant.

If you're starting to have thoughts about self-harm get help immediately, says Timmons-Mitchell, who suggests calling the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255. “They have a lot of tools at their disposal, and they're trained to provide really good services,” she says. “People shouldn't feel hesitant to call them because they want to hear from you."

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