Coping with anxiety is tough in normal times. The heightened tensions and uncertainty from COVID-19 make anxiety, even well-managed anxiety like mine, even worse.
Fortunately though, I’ve learned to persevere. To deal with the extra dose of worry from this pandemic, I’ve adapted my strategies over the last few weeks in ways that help me specifically keep my coronavirus concerns from spiraling into a crippling anxiety attack.
The Health Problems That Brought On My Anxiety
When I was pregnant with my first child in 2014, I developed preeclampsia. I had felt sick for a while thanks to constant morning sickness and recurrent kidney infections. But I didn’t think anything was wrong, even though my face had swelled and I had gained nearly 100 pounds. One weekend, just shy of 37 weeks pregnant, my pain shot to unbearable levels. My legs and hands swelled to the size of tree trunks. I looked like the girl from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who turns into a blueberry and needs to be juiced, only I wasn’t blue.
Because my symptoms were escalating, my aunt, a nurse, urged me to go to the hospital. When I got there, my blood pressure was 160/110, which indicated severe hypertension. The doctors induced labor, but even after my daughter, Lucy, was born, my blood pressure remained high. I stayed in the hospital for a week while the doctors tried to get it under control.
In the following two years, I was hospitalized twice for kidney failure and once for SIRS, a life threatening illness related to sepsis. I was in and out of the emergency room with excruciating pain in my right side.
My doctor brushed off my concerns and wrote me a prescription for an antidepressant, assuming I had just had a run of bad luck.
I finally sought help at a university hospital, and in 2016 I was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease called loin pain hematuria syndrome (LPHS), which causes debilitating flank pain and blood in the urine. I was prescribed a cocktail of medications to manage the disease, and I started to feel mostly functional again.
My relief lasted until I got pregnant with identical twins, in 2018. That's when my medical anxiety kicked into overdrive. I was already high risk because of the preeclampsia history, high blood pressure, and LPHS, and being pregnant with monochorionic-diamniotic twins, identical twins who share a placenta but not an amniotic sac, further increased my risk of complications.
I lost sleep obsessing over the idea that something terrible was going to happen to me again. I feared hospital bed rest and being separated from my then 4-year-old daughter. These fears and raging hormones had me regularly breaking down in tears.
One of my sons was stillborn. The other was a 32-week preemie with an uncertain prognosis because of his prematurity and complications from his brother's death.
When I was finally able to bring my newborn son, Max, home, I could never relax. He was a colicky baby. He cried round the clock for two months straight. Each time his cries pierced the air, I panicked wondering if something was wrong.
I sought help. I didn’t know where to start, so I called the nurse line at my obstetrician’s office for suggestions on what to do. My ob-gyn medicated me for postpartum depression and anxiety and suggested I regularly talk to a therapist.
In therapy I learned that the root of my anxiety was a combination of postpartum depression and the medical struggles I had endured for the past five years. From there I was able to develop coping skills to help me recover. Some of these skills, like limiting my internet searches and exposure to stressors, are also helping me cope with the current coronavirus pandemic.
Below, I share some of the things I've learned. I hope these strategies can help others who are struggling in these uncertain times.
6 Ways I’m Managing My Anxiety During Coronavirus
1. I Get My Information From Trusted Sources and Tune Out White Noise
For me, knowledge is power. I am less fearful if I know exactly what I am up against. So instead of listening to news outlets, which tend to hype up findings for ratings and engagement, I go straight to the sources and follow the recommendations put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
I also pay attention to how the CDC talks about the pandemic. For example, the CDC says to take “everyday precautions” like washing hands regularly and distancing yourself from people who are sick. And as long as I am doing that, I should not worry myself about doing anything else.
Jennifer Crall, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, offers this advice: “This feels scary, but a lot of the fear is based on a narrative that this is a catastrophe; a scary future that may never happen.”
2. I Limit Exposure to People Who Trigger My Anxiety
If you are all gloom and doom over the COVID-19 outbreak, then I can’t spend time with you right now. Likewise, if you make too light of the situation, you equally kick off my anxiety.
To avoid anxiety-triggering people, I:
- Unfollow negative people on social media
- Change the subject when COVID-19 comes up with someone who triggers my anxiety
- Avoid conversations with people I know don’t share my approach
3. I Take Control of the Things I Can in This Uncertain Time
Crisis situations remind me of how little we actually can control. COVID-19 is an anxiety trigger because it is one gigantic unknown. No one really knows how this is going to play out in the coming months. But we can all make choices that are good for our families.
As the news got more and more serious, my husband and I agreed to prepare. We made a list of things we actually needed to survive in our house for a long period of time.
For us, this list included healthy foods and cleaning supplies that were running low, since these are things we need to keep us well.
My family and I have also developed a new routine to keep us moving and not going stir-crazy. We prioritize eating a balanced diet, getting some outside time and exercise, and making sure we get enough sleep.
Dr. Crall says, “The fact is, you have the power to make good choices for yourself and your family.” In other words, we are not at the mercy of the coronavirus or the public response to the pandemic. Remembering that helps make things feel manageable to me.
RELATED: 10 Virtual Ways to Escape Reality During the Coronavirus Pandemic
4. Be Kind to Others
When I venture out to stock my pantry, I try to be helpful when I can. I apply the same principle to my interactions with others in public. Instead of getting annoyed at the long lines in grocery stores or all the people blocking the aisles, I help point people toward the products they need. And others have done the same for me when I need help.
It turns out that peer support can actually help people manage stress and anxiety.
Ashley Hennessey, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in Philadelphia, says, “Doing kind things for each other builds a sense of community. People who engage in prosocial behavior feel more connected to each other and decrease negative feelings. Altruistic behavior engages the pleasure centers in your brain, which make you feel better.”
Crall agrees. “Research has repeatedly demonstrated that helping others helps us feel happier. It takes the focus off our own suffering and gives a sense of purpose and meaning," she says.
5. I Go Easy On Myself
My daughter’s school and our community center have announced closures for the next several weeks. This means that like many other working parents right now, I am entering survival mode.
And this means cutting myself (and my family) some slack. While I generally work from home, we normally limit screen time and ask our daughter to put away one toy before taking out another.
Right now, though, my daughter is watching a movie, and there is a sea of toys scattered across the floor. It’s chaos. And I am okay with that.
At the same time, Dr. Hennessey says it’s important to maintain some sense of normalcy by, for instance, creating a schedule. “A loose schedule can help decrease anxiety in both adults and kids."
6. Maintain a Sense of Self-Care
Self-care is crucial when it comes to managing my anxiety. I feel so much better when I remember that part of taking care of others is taking care of myself, too. I have more patience and can be more engaged.
I do a handful of things to make myself feel balanced each day, including:
- Read a book
- Take five minutes each day for quiet, meditative time by myself
Crall says, “Taking some deep breaths, or making use of your other self-care strategies, can help you access your rational mind.”