Graphic of two hands holding two different pieces of string that twist into shapes of both sides of the brain. This image is supposed to represent balancing anxiety and mental health.

What you should know about anxiety disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic

Anxiety is an entirely normal reaction to stress. And in some situations, this can be helpful — it alerts us to things that might be dangerous or details that we need to pay attention to.

How COVID-19 may impact those with anxiety disorder

Certainly, as we live through the pandemic, there are a number of new stressors in many of our lives. To feel some degree of anxiety is normal and even helpful — it might help us be more aware of when we should wash our hands, keep our distance from sick individuals, and take steps to keep ourselves and our families safe and healthy. Even in challenging times like this, many people are able to manage these sorts of stressors in a healthy way. But if you’re living with an anxiety disorder, you might be having a tough time coping during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Signs of an anxiety disorder

Anxiety disorders are different from everyday anxiety in that the anxiety moves beyond normal feelings of anxiousness and into the realm of something more severe. Signs of an anxiety disorder can include:

  • feeling nervous, on edge, restless, wound-up, or irritable
  • having trouble concentrating
  • having trouble sleeping
  • feeling tired or weak
  • feeling an impending sense of doom
  • experiencing physical symptoms like increased heart rate, chest tightness, muscle tension, rapid breathing, sweating, shaking, or gastrointestinal problems

Many times people with anxiety disorders may even be worried or stressed about things that are unlikely to pose realistic threats, though during this time it can feel like many worries about the coronavirus are warranted. Regardless, if severe anxiety is present in your life in this way, it can cause real problems. An anxiety disorder is a mental illness that, if left untreated, can have significant health consequences and impact your life in major ways, including struggling with ordinary activities or making it hard to get through your day.

Risk factors

Risk factors for anxiety disorders can include a family history of anxiety, a history of trauma, long-term stressful events, certain medical conditions, or a history of substance abuse. While these risk factors don’t cause anxiety disorders, they do increase an individual’s risk of developing one. Whether you’re just now realizing that you might have an anxiety disorder or if you were already aware that you had one before the coronavirus outbreak, you should make sure you do all you can to take care of yourself and get the help you need now.

So how can you cope with anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, be sure to reach out to a mental health professional — many practitioners offer appointments by telehealth if that’s easier for you. You don’t need to go through this alone. And for short-term or emergency situations, helplines and emergency phone lines are available to provide support at any time, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255 or online chat), the Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990) or the Crisis Textline (Text HOME to 741741).

This is also a good time to be honest with your loved ones about how you’re feeling so they can support you. You might also want to reach out to online support groups so that you can talk about your experience and share coping strategies or even explore apps (like for meditation, breathing, or self-care) that can provide further helpful resources. You can also use any self-care tools that have helped you work through and relieve anxiety in the past — like doing meditation or breathing exercises, enjoying small pleasures that calm you and bring you joy (like art-making or listening to favorite music), taking a warm bath, or sticking with regular healthy habits like getting enough sleep, eating well, and engaging in physical activity. And this may be a time when you want to take a break from the news — you may want to check in once a day for just a short while to stay aware of important updates, but you may also want to have a loved one fill you in on important updates but otherwise not follow along too closely, especially if you’re finding it causes you a great deal of anxiety.

It’s also worth reminding yourself — even aloud, even as a mantra — “I can cope. I can manage. I can get support.”  And you really can. If you’re having a particularly tough time, know that support is available to help you get through it.

Your COVID-19 guide

Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team.

  • John Sharp. “Coping with the coronavirus pandemic for people with anxiety disorders.” Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Harvard University, March 26 2020. Retrieved March 27 2020.
  • “Anxiety Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, July 2018. Retrieved March 27 2020.
  • “APA Coronavirus Resources.” American Psychiatric Association. American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved March 27 2020.
  • “Stress and Coping.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 23 2020. Retrieved March 27 2020.
  • “Symptoms.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, April 2018. Retrieved March 27 2020.
  • “What Are Anxiety Disorders?” American Psychiatric Association. American Psychiatric Association, January 2017. Retrieved March 27 2020.

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