Monday, March 23, 2020 - Anxiety in the age of coronavirus: Or, how to cope in a suddenly weird world

(Photo illustration via Shutterstock)

By Mike Scott,

“Pandemic.” Just the word is enough to trigger anxiety in most sensible people.

But, for some, the medical concerns surrounding the current COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak is just the start of the stress. With kids now home from school, adults being sent home from work, and the state urging people to hunker down at home for the next few weeks, you need not have contracted coronavirus to feel waylaid by its fallout.

And that, according to Covington psychotherapist Randall Parent LCSW, is perfectly understandable.

“The number one, number two and number three reasons people have anxiety are health-related and financial related, and then relationships and family,” Parent said. “This (coronavirus outbreak) is involving health and financing, so we’re hitting two of the biggest ones that cause people anxiety, so anxiety is going up because of that. That’s a reality.”

One of the biggest culprits, Parent said, is the loss of a daily routine, which can make people feel as if they’ve lost control over their day-to-day lives. Without that, and without the level of predictability it brings, he said, it’s only natural for anxiety to mount.

“When you’ve got routine, you don’t have to think about a lot. When you get up in the morning, you know what you’re going to do,” Parent said. “Right now, we don’t have any control of what’s going to happen, and it’s freaking everybody out.”

That’s normal, too, he said.

“If people wouldn’t react initially with this anxiety and concern, then there’s something wrong with them,” Parent said. “It should faze you. Then you have to readjust to your new normal – and to find a new normal, find a new routine.”

That means you should resist sleeping in every morning during your coronavirus “holiday.” Instead, wake up as usual, get dressed for the day and then – if you’re not able to work from home -- perhaps tackle some household chores you’ve been putting off.

Or, better yet, and as long as you’re utilizing proper social distancing protocols, take a walk. Do some gardening. Call or Facetime someone. Get some sun on your face.

“Sunshine does help,” Parent said. “That is a biological, scientific fact. Sunshine increases your mood.”

The staff at St. Tammany Health System’s Mandeville Emergency Department put that bit of advice into practice during a recent lull, according to Off-Site Emergency Head Rebecca Bozzelle, who on Thursday led her team on a spontaneous lap around the building.

“Just because we have to wear masks all the time, it’s just nice to get out and get sunshine,” Bozzelle said. “We got out, we did a lap around the building, a couple of nurses sat in the grass. We looked for four-leaf clovers. They were making flower crowns.”

It didn’t take long, she said. But after that brief respite, everyone’s mood was noticeably lifted.

Parent pointed out that such outings take advantage of another key to dampening anxiety: distraction.

“The number one treatment for anxiety that doesn’t involve medication … is distraction, because anxiety is really excessive worry,” Parent said. “Anxiety goes from excessive worry to lack of concentration, inability to focus, then it becomes physical illness -- stomachache, sore throat, panic attacks – and then, at that point, people start thinking they have the illness.

“You want to stop the thought process – ‘Oh, my god, am I going to get sick?,’ ‘Oh, my god, are we going to make it financially?’ -- which are real thoughts. You just can’t focus on them constantly.”

That, of course, is easier said than done -- especially with the 24-hour cable news networks focusing on little else but coronavirus lately.

Thankfully, the recent proliferation of online streaming services – Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Hulu, just to name a few – offer endless opportunities for electronic distraction. And while Parent said he wouldn’t ordinarily endorse binge-watching, “ordinary” left town couple of weeks ago.

“For right now, we can do some binge-watching,” he said. “You’ve got to take a break from it all -- from the news, from your iPhone, from Twitter and Facebook. That’s real important, to get away from that.”

While things are trickier for people who were sick even before coronavirus disrupted all of our lives, many of the same coping tips apply, according to St. Tammany Health System’s Colleen Hughes MSW LCSW OSW-C, an oncology social worker at St. Tammany Cancer Center who also stressed the value of positivity.

“It has been said that our biggest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another,” Hughes said. “Instead of allowing negative and ‘worst-case scenario’ thoughts to overwhelm you, try to replace those thoughts with healthier, more adaptive thoughts. What pleasurable or meaningful thing might you accomplish during this time of social distancing? What can you do that might be helpful to others? What will you learn about yourself or the world?

She continued: “Remember, stress is bad for the immune system. Be sure to get good sleep, take a walk, get some fresh air, and get good nutrition. All these things can strengthen your immune system. Sleep is power, food is fuel, and movement is medicine!”

It’s also important, Parent added, to keep in mind that, as surreal and as topsy-turvy as the world might seem right now, normalcy will return – just like it did after Hurricane Katrina, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and after other recent disruptions to our lives.

“This is passing. This is not here to stay. This isn’t the rest of our life,” he said. “Even though we’re not sure when it’s going to end and we don’t know how it’s going to affect us, we do know it’s going to end. It’s passing.

“One day, we’ll get back to our normal, we’ll be back in our restaurants and we’ll be back to shaking hands.”