The COVID-19 outbreak is causing most states to take unprecedented actions to limit the spread of infection. This includes social distancing and stay at home orders. While these measures are necessary to contain the virus, they are also problematic for people with anxiety disorders.
How COVID-19 Worsens Anxiety Disorders
There are many ways coronavirus could worsen an existing mental health disorder. For someone with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the current guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus could reinforce the disorder. Excessive hand-washing, cleaning, and disinfecting are common with OCD. Normally, a treatment plan would involve resisting these types of behaviors, but now, these compulsive actions are encouraged. This is very unsettling for people who have been fighting to overcome the fears driving those actions.
People living with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or health anxiety may find it hard to manage fears that they or a loved one will contract the virus. While this is a reasonable fear during a pandemic, individuals with GAD or health anxiety will worry excessively, to the point that they are unable to function normally.
Panic disorder, agoraphobia, and social anxiety often lead to isolation and withdrawal. Normally, therapists encourage their clients with anxiety disorders to get out of the house and fight the urge to self-isolate. But now, COVID-19 is forcing people to do just that.
How can you cope with your anxiety disorder when you have to engage in harmful behaviors like isolation? How can you manage anxious feelings when there is a good reason to be anxious? Here are some strategies you can use to keep working towards recovery despite these challenges.
Practice Identifying Whether a Thought is Rational
Thoughts are at the root of anxiety disorders. With practice, you can identify the irrational thoughts that are driven by the disorder. The same principle applies during COVID-19. Although there are similarities between anxiety-driven actions and coronavirus precautions, there are also key differences. Look for the reasoning and logic behind what you’re thinking.
For example, there is a difference between thinking, “I should stay in my house as much as possible right now because I don’t want to expose myself or others to coronavirus” versus something like, “I should never leave my house again because the world is too dangerous.” The first thought is based in logic and doesn’t exaggerate the situation with absolutes such as “always” and “never.”
Challenge Irrational Thoughts with Truth
Once you’ve identified an irrational thought, you can challenge it by reminding yourself of what you know to be true. As an example, when you start to think about never leaving the house again, tell yourself: “It’s true that there is a degree of risk outside, but it’s unreasonable to stay in my house at all times. Risk is a normal part of life. In most cases, it’s manageable. This virus is spreading right now, but we will eventually find a vaccine or treatment. We have been able to contain virus outbreaks in the past.”
This technique is used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). If you have never practiced CBT before, now is a great time to get in touch with a therapist trained in this technique.
Access cognitive behavioral therapy online.
Pay Attention to Your Behaviors
You can use cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to control your actions too. It’s rational to wash your hands after coming in from outside or before preparing food. Likewise, it’s a good idea to disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. On the other hand, disinfecting surfaces every hour or washing your hands when you haven’t touched anything that could be contaminated are irrational behaviors.
If you find it hard to distinguish between rational and irrational behaviors, ask yourself why you are doing something. Is it guided by trustworthy information about the virus? Or is it motivated by obsessive thoughts?
Reach out to Your Support System Virtually
While you may not be able to physically leave the house, you can still keep in touch with your support system through technology. Whether you text, call, or video chat, outside support is essential for maintaining your mental health. If possible, try to video chat regularly since it is the closest thing to talking with someone in-person. Just texting or emailing is still very isolating because you don’t see or hear the other person.
Keep Your Brain Occupied
Keep your mind engaged with activities throughout the day. These should include a variety of tasks, from chores to a creative project or watching a favorite TV show. It’s important to schedule downtime too, but avoid sitting with negative thoughts.
Use Telemental Health Services to Continue Care
Above all, make sure you continue with your mental health care during COVID-19. Teletherapy services let you access professional help from home using secure video conferencing technology. Online therapy sessions are just as effective as in-person treatment in many cases.
If you have an anxiety disorder and live in Pennsylvania, you can access The Light Program’s services through teletherapy. Our therapists are trained in a variety of techniques to address anxiety, panic, OCD, and other disorders. Call our admissions line at (610) 644-6464to schedule a session.