Dealing With Worry, Stress, and Anxiety in the Time of COVID-19: Special Winter Edition

Understand your feelings and discover ways to cope with coronavirus anxiety this winter.

Anxiety may be a long-term acquaintance of yours, as is my case. Or maybe you have only recently bumped into it, in the context of the pandemic. Either way, know that we are all in the same boat now. That makes help much easier to get, and this is one of the materials that could make a difference for you.

The downside is that… Winter is coming! In the anxiety universe, this translates to Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a notch above what we used to call winter blues. But I’ve got that covered as well. So, let’s get better together!

Anxiety = Worry + Stress

Often thought to be interchangeable, worry and stress are, in fact, the two components of anxiety. Worry is the cognitive component, taking the form of obsessive thoughts. Stress is what happens to our bodies when we perceive an external event as a threat. Combined, they give us the crippling feeling that we know as anxiety.

Worry will never solve tomorrow’s problems. It will only take energy away from today.

— James Altucher

How to deal with worry, stress, and anxiety:

  • Establish a worry “budget” of 20 minutes per day. This is the amount of time you allow yourself to worry about something, before switching thoughts. After enough practice, you will be able to lower the budget without much effort.
  • Write down your worries. It takes 10 minutes at most and it helps get rid of obsessive thoughts, decluttering your mind.
  • Apply the Worry Tree (detailed a bit further down).
  • Exercise. Cardio routines are the best free destresser, lowering your adrenaline and cortisol levels. Recommended time: 30 min/day.
  • Focus on what you can control and accept what you cannot. Reconnect to the present; don’t dwell on the future.
  • Avoid stimulants, such as sugar, caffeine, and alcohol.

How COVID-19 Accentuates Anxiety

Lately, we face challenges that add to our usual level of anxiety, sparking also fear, frustration, or even boredom. Besides worrying about our health and that of our loved ones, we also struggle with isolation, lower incomes, weight gain, and reduced freedom.

The emotional rollercoaster we are now on can be summed up as lockdown fatigue. We miss our old way of life and grieve the loss of safety and predictability. This makes us feel angry, irritable, sad, anxious, exhausted. We have difficulty focusing, we lack motivation, and our sleep patterns are messed up.

What we can do is to reframe our negative thoughts.

Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.

— Willie Nelson

Instead of thinking about how uncomfortable and inconvenient it is to wear a mask, focus on its benefits: the mask is a barrier against the virus.

Instead of thinking about the inability to travel, focus on nearby places you could visit. You (re)discover charming sights, while also helping the local economy.

Instead of thinking that working from home is complicated and difficult, see it as an opportunity to spend quality time with the people and pets in your household.

Worry Decision Tree Applied to COVID-19

When asking “Can I do something about it?”, we acknowledge the worry as being either a real problem or a hypothetical situation.

If it is real, we engage in problem-solving. If it is hypothetical, we postpone it or find a distraction.

Problem-solving involves creating an action plan. In the case of the coronavirus, there are several worries that we can tackle in a tree of their own. Here are the two most common worries you can have:

I am worried about catching COVID-19 at work.

Ask yourself: “Can I work from home?”

  • Yes > DO IT > Let worry go!
  • No > Ask yourself:

A. “Can I avoid public transport?”

  • Yes > DO IT > Let worry go!
  • No > Follow guidelines > Let worry go!

B. “Do I work closely with others?”

  • Yes/No > Follow guidelines > Let worry go!

What “Follow guidelines” means in the scheme above:

Wear a mask. Properly.

Maintain a safe distance. At least 6 feet.

Keep interactions brief and at a minimum.

Make sure people in the same indoor space as you also wear a mask.

Avoid touching common surfaces.

Disinfect your hands and personal objects often.

Don’t touch your face if you haven’t washed your hands (for 20 seconds).

I am worried about a family member catching COVID-19.

First of all, acknowledge that you are not responsible for other people’s actions. Then, do what is in your power, but try not to be pushy — it may have the opposite effect:

  • Keep them informed.
  • Explain calmly.
  • Ask them to do it for your health, if not for their own benefit.

Other Ways To Cope With COVID-19 Anxiety

Avoid excessive media coverage. Stick to reliable sources and check them only once or twice a day.

Focus on what you are grateful for — it helps build psychological resilience.

Talk about your worries with others and seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed.

Try breathing exercises, like the 4–7–8 method. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds.

Stick to a routine. As hard as it may be, you need that kind of structure, order, and predictability in your fight.

Eat healthily and exercise. Dancing, walking, yoga are forms of exercise too.

It Gets Harder During the Winter

Lockdowns and working from home make us spend even more time indoors than we used to in past winters. This increases the chances of Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). One more thing to fight against during these already difficult times.

While SAD is a lot like depression, which you might be familiar with, be on the lookout for these signs:

  • Sleepiness during the day
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased appetite for carbs

What you can do right away about it is to ensure you exercise regularly and eat healthily. Other treatments might need a doctor’s approval: light therapy, antidepressants, vitamin D supplements, or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Avoid Turning Anxiety Into Depression

Since depression is a more discouraging battle to pick, we are safer while on the plain anxiety side, if possible. What pushes us towards depression this winter, besides the yearly SAD, bears the name of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is what happens when you experience a stressful situation repeatedly. This repetition might make you think that you cannot control or change the situation. So, you no longer try to do something about it, even when you are actually given the chance. You become numb. Don’t!

Have you encountered learned helplessness before this coronavirus? Maybe you tried several times to quit smoking or you attempted several diets without being able to lose weight. You eventually gave up the thought. But learned helplessness can be overcome through therapy. A professional can help you identify negative thoughts and harmful behaviors and turn them around.

Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.

— Nelson Mandela

Extra Winter Advice

Plan your day so as to get as much natural light as possible. You could even rearrange the furniture so that you would spend more time by the window. It will make you feel less confined.

Engage in new indoor activities: painting, knitting, singing, writing, yoga, meditation. Keep active with house chores and exercise workouts, even if they are just seated exercises.

If it’s not too cold outside, enjoy more fresh air: open windows, sit in the garden or on the balcony. You can do this when cold too, of course, just make sure you wrap up.

Keep a mood diary and notice what makes you feel better or worse. Keep a gratitude journal and focus on things that bring you joy and hope.

Prepare for the holidays, but acknowledge the necessary changes in traditions this year. Replacing visits with video calls, for example. Discuss about these changes with your loved ones and make sure children understand and don’t have a hard time because of it. Explain how others do the same thing this year. Nobody has Christmas parties now, but IT’S OKAY! All the inconveniences will go away when it becomes safe again.

Mental health is not something somebody else struggles with anymore. It’s something we’re all struggling with now.

— Steve Joordens, Psychology Prof. @ University of Toronto

By trying as many of these steps as you find fit, you will not only handle the coronavirus anxiety better, but you might also tackle harmful behaviors that you have given up on changing.

Not to brag, but this pandemic actually helped me. It helped me quit smoking after 15 years. It helped me tame the night owl I carry inside. It helped me overcome the fear of blood tests and seeing doctors. It helped me reconnect with my lifelong passion: writing. It was a long journey, but oh so rewarding.

Freelance copywriter, translator, cat lover. Anxiety & depression fighter. Couch potato. Poet. Joker.

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