Anxiety in the Time of Coronavirus

A local psychologist shares insight into dealing with stress and uncertainty during crises.

Dr. Rachel Needle

No one has been immune to the impacts of the coronavirus. Whether you’re dealing with a job loss, a sick loved one, or the rescheduling of a milestone event, this pandemic has been a major source of anxiety.

PBI recently caught up with Dr. Rachel Needle, a licensed psychologist and executive director of Whole Health Psychological Center in West Palm Beach, to discuss dealing with the emotions that arise during crises.


PBI: What are some of the root causes that spur anxiety surrounding global crises like the coronavirus?

Needle: There is so much uncertainty during global crises such as the recent coronavirus pandemic. It is something we have never dealt with in our lifetime, and there is still so much unknown about the virus itself. This creates anxiety and a feeling of being unsafe. Uncertainty arouses our stress response. Change also causes anxiety for many, and at the current time a lot of the change, i.e. not being able to leave the house, losing income, not being around family and friends, etc., adds an extra layer of stress thereby increasing the anxiety. We feel powerless and as if everything is out of our control. This is one reason it is important to focus on the things you can control during this difficult time. For some it is the virus that is scary. For others it’s the drastic changes and the uncertainty. And for others it is a combination.

In general, what would you say to someone who is experiencing anxiety specifically tied to the coronavirus?

I would say, “I get it!” This is an unprecedented time in our country. And there is so much uncertainty which leads to anxiety and not feeling safe. It is important that people know that they are not alone, and that we allow them to express their feelings without having to respond or agree, but just to listen so they can feel heard.

Isolation is a big issue right now. How would you suggest individuals work through feelings of isolation during a time of social distancing?

It is important that people make a conscious effort not to isolate. We have to physically distance, but that is not the same as social distancing. Make sure you stay connected with family members and friends.

Stay connected through virtual meetups.

Given the current pandemic, what would you say to those who fear getting sick or fear someone in their family will get sick?

Focus on what is in your control and do everything you can to keep yourself healthy. Know the facts, take precautions, and do what you can to limit your risk.

How would you recommend parents address the topic of large-scale crises, such as the coronavirus, with their children?

The most important thing for parents to do is talk to their children. Ask them what they know, answer questions, share facts, and correct any misinformation using age-appropriate language. Model healthy coping and expression of feelings, and even tell them how you handle your stress. Let children know you are here to listen and support them if they have any feelings coming up. Empathize with them if they are feeling nervous.

Make an effort to continue with the routines you can and make new ones to follow. Design a new schedule with your children and allow them to contribute, too, so there is something they can control. Limit media exposure, including social media, for you and your children. Lastly, monitor your own behavior. Your children will pick up on it if you are overly anxious; children take emotional cues from us.

Behavioral changes and issues are to be expected during this time, so make an effort to respond gently. Increased anxiety, worries, fears, nightmares, and meltdowns are likely to occur. Be there to listen and support your child, maintain emotional connection, and do not introduce major behavioral plans or consequences at this time.

If you’re feeling as if you or your child needs to talk to a professional, make a virtual appointment with a psychologist.

What activities could one do to help mitigate anxiety during this time?

1. Accept and acknowledge your negative emotions, without judgment. Don’t avoid them or they will get stronger. Practice mindfulness which is staying in the moment, on purpose, without judgment.

2. Structure your day with a set schedule and routines. They will be new routines. Plan activities and set goals.

3. Practice physical distancing rather than social distancing. Schedule video conferencing calls with friends. Fitness instructors are doing online group classes, and Netflix has come out with a feature where you can watch a movie with friends.

4. Take care of yourself. Get outside if you can, even go for a walk if that’s an option. Exercise. Boost your immunity by staying healthy.

5. Shift your thinking. Let’s think about this as a time that can foster growth, resilience, and a new appreciation for life.

6. Help others. Find small ways to give back, i.e. helping a family in need with groceries, checking in with elderly neighbors, or supporting local restaurants.

7. Find something you can control. Organize your closet or your files. Do a project you have been putting off.

8. Know that there is help. If you are struggling, most mental health professionals are doing online therapy, so please reach out. I, and the other therapists at Whole Health Psychological, are available and you can always call 2-1-1.

Release negative energy with exercise.

If someone with anxiety feels himself or herself spiraling or disassociating as a result of anxiety, what grounding techniques could be of help?

Some techniques that will be helpful include practicing mindfulness. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing—breathing from the diaphragm, five counts inhale, hold it for three, then five counts exhale for a few minutes several times a day—can reduce our baseline anxiety over time and can be helpful to use during a moment of intense anxiety as well.

One grounding technique is to sit in a comfortable chair, feet on the floor, arms to your side, and begin to focus on your breath and your body. Think about how your body feels in the chair, how your feet feel on the floor, what smells you notice. Spend time just focusing on your body and your breath.

One sensory awareness grounding technique is called the 54321 Grounding Technique. Name five things you see around you, i.e. a spot on the ceiling or a painting. Describe four things you can feel/touch around you, i.e. the ground under your feet or your hair on the back of your neck. Listen for three things you can hear, i.e. the traffic around you or your stomach rumbling. Name two things you can smell; if you need to move around to smell something, you can. Say one thing you can taste, i.e. the toothpaste in your mouth

What kind of positive self-talk or words of affirmation do you feel could be helpful to someone dealing with anxiety surrounding global crises such as the coronavirus?

Create affirmations that work for you. Some suggestions are: I am healthy today. I have control over my life. I am happy. I am at home with my family. I choose to be calm. I am at peace. I feel calm. I am strong and will persevere.

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