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Anxiety in the face of the unknown: Tips for coping with stress, fear and uncertainty

Ansiedad ante lo desconocido: Consejos para afrontar el estrés, el miedo y la incertidumbre

Fears surrounding COVID-19 can take an emotional toll, especially if you're already living with an anxiety disorder.

But don't feel helpless. I am going to give you a series of tips that can help you overcome this stressful moment for which no one was prepared.

Understanding your anxiety

Being in the midst of a global pandemic, with cities and even entire countries shut down, is a terrifying sight.

Many of us are already in areas that have been affected by the coronavirus. And we all wonder when we see the headlines: what will happen next?

For many people, the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus is the hardest thing to deal with.

Because no one knows for sure how it will be affected or how bad things could get. And that makes it all too easy to catastrophize the picture into overwhelming fear and panic.

But there are many things that you can do, of course, to control anxiety and fears.

1. Stay informed, but don't obsessively check the news

It is vital to stay informed, particularly about what is happening in your community, to follow recommended safety precautions and do your bit to slow the spread of the virus.

But there is a lot of misinformation, as well as sensational coverage that feeds fear.

Therefore, it is important to discern what you read and watch.

  • Stick to reliable sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and local public health authorities can offer you official data and ensure that you are accessing quality information.
  • Limit how often you check for updates: Constant monitoring of the news and social media can quickly become compulsive and self-defeating, fueling anxiety rather than alleviating it.

The limit is different for everyone, so pay attention to how you feel and adjust accordingly.

  • Stay away from the media if you start to feel overwhelmed: If anxiety is an ongoing problem, consider limiting your media consumption to a specific time period and time of day. For example, thirty minutes each night at 7:00 p.m.
  • Ask someone you trust to share important updates – If you feel better avoiding media altogether, ask someone you trust to pass on updates you need to know about.
  • Be careful what you share – we all need to do our part to avoid spreading rumors and creating unnecessary panic.

Do your best to verify the information before transmitting it. Snopes' Coronavirus Collection is a good starting point.

2. Focus on the things you can control

In this time of mass upheaval, many things are out of your control, including how long the pandemic lasts, how other people behave, and what will happen in your community.

This is a difficult thing to accept and many respond by endlessly searching the internet for the answers and thinking about the different scenarios that could happen.

But focusing on questions with unknown answers and unknown circumstances will get you nowhere, beyond making you feel exhausted, anxious, and overwhelmed.

If you are gripped by the fear of what might happen, try shifting your focus to the things you can control.

For example, you have no way to act on how serious the coronavirus outbreak is in your city or town. But you can take steps to reduce your personal risk or avoid unknowingly spreading it to others:

  • Wash your hands frequently (for at least 20 seconds) with soap and water or a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your face, particularly your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home as much as possible, even if you don't feel sick.
  • Avoid crowds and gatherings with 10 or more people.
  • Limit non-essential purchases and travel.
  • Stay 2 meters away from others when you are away from home.
  • Get enough sleep because it helps strengthen your immune system.
  • Follow all the recommendations of the health authorities.

3. Plan what you can

It's natural to be concerned about what might happen if your workplace closes, your kids stay home, you or someone you love gets sick, or you have to quarantine.

While you can think about these possibilities, being proactive helps alleviate at least some of the anxiety.

  • Write down any specific concerns you have about how the coronavirus may disrupt your life. If you start to feel overwhelmed, take a break.
  • Make a list of all the possible solutions you can think of to get ahead. Try not to get too hung up on the "perfect" options.
  • Focus on concrete situations that you can resolve or change, rather than circumstances outside of your control.

4. How to prevent the famous “what if” from activating in your brain

Giving up the desire for certainty and control is easier said than done.

If you find yourself starting to slip into negativity or panic, connecting yourself to the present moment can stop the negative spiral and allow your rational brain to come back online.

The technique is simple but effective:

  • Focus on your breath and your body.
  • Focus all your attention on the here and now: notice the sights, sounds, smells around you and what you feel in your body.
  • Breathe in and out slowly.
  • If you lose focus, calmly bring your mind back to your body and breathe until you feel calmer.
  • Stay connected, even when you're physically isolated.

5. Connect with others

Evidence shows that many people with coronavirus, particularly young and apparently healthy people, do not have symptoms but can transmit the virus.

So by practicing social distancing you are already making a positive difference.

But this action carries its own risks. Humans are social animals and are designed for connection.

Isolation and loneliness can exacerbate anxiety and depression, and even affect your physical health. And this is when it will be most useful for you to stay connected and seek support:

  • Make it a priority to stay in touch with friends and family. If you tend to withdraw when you're depressed or anxious, consider scheduling regular appointments via phone, chat, or Skype to counter that tendency.
  • While in-person visits are limited, substitute video chat if you can. Face-to-face contact is like a "vitamin" for your mental health, reducing the risk of depression and helping to relieve stress and anxiety.
  • Social networks are a powerful tool, not only to connect with friends, family and acquaintances, but to feel connected in a broader sense with the communities, the country and the world. That will remind you that you are not alone.

But be mindful of how they make you feel, and don't hesitate to mute keywords or people that are exacerbating your anxiety.

Log out if they make you feel worse; your peace of mind is the most important thing.

6. Don't let the coronavirus dominate your conversations

It's important to take a break from stressful thoughts about the pandemic to enjoy each other's company: laugh, share stories, and focus on other things going on in your life.

We all need reassurance, advice, or a sympathetic ear during this difficult time.

But be careful who you choose as your sounding board. See that emotions can be highly contagious.

  • Avoid talking about the virus with people who tend to be negative or who reinforce and increase your fears.
  • Target people who are thoughtful, level-headed, and good listeners.
  • If you don't have someone to confide in, apps like “7 Cups” are a good resource for free emotional support.

7. Take care of your body and spirit

Right now many are applying proven stress management strategies such as healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and meditation.

But, you must add the practice of self-care in the face of the unique interruptions caused by the coronavirus.

  • Be kind to yourself: Stay calm if you experience more depression or anxiety than usual. You are not the only one going through this situation.
  • Stick to your routines as best you can: Even if you're stuck at home, try to stick to your regular sleep, meal, and work schedule. This helps maintain a sense of normalcy.
  • Make time for activities you enjoy: read a good book, catch a sitcom on Netflix, play a board game or video game, make a new recipe, craft or piece of art. It doesn't matter what you choose, as long as it takes you out of your worries.
  • If possible, go out into nature: the sun and fresh air will do you good; even a walk around your neighborhood can make you feel better. Just make sure you avoid crowds, stay away from people you meet, and obey any restrictions in your area.
  • Find ways to exercise: Staying active will help you release anxiety, relieve stress, and control your mood.

While the gym and group classes are out of reach, bike, walk or jog.

You can also search the Internet for exercise videos. There are many options that don't require special equipment, such as yoga and routines that use your own body weight.

  • Avoid self-medicate : beware of using medications without the supervision of a specialist, psychotropic substances or resorting to alcohol to treat anxiety or depression.
  • Do a relaxation practice : Techniques like deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can bring you back to a balanced state.

If you practice it regularly you will get more benefits, so try to reserve a little time for it, every day.

8. Helping others will make you feel better.

It's no coincidence that those who focus on those most in need and support their communities, especially in times of crisis, tend to be happier and healthier than those who act selfishly.

Helping others can not only make a difference in your area and even in the rest of the world. It also improves your mental health and increases your well-being.

Much of the angst that accompanies this pandemic stems from feeling powerless. Doing kind and helpful acts for others can help you regain a sense of control over your life, as well as add meaning and purpose.

Even when you isolate yourself or maintain social distance, you are supporting many people.

  • Follow guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus : Even if you're not in a high-risk group, staying home, washing your hands frequently, and avoiding contact with others helps save the lives of the most vulnerable in your community and Avoid overloading the healthcare system.
  • Reach out to others in need: If you know people in your community who are isolated, particularly the elderly or disabled, you can offer support.

Does an elderly neighbor need help with grocery shopping or with a prescription? You can leave the packages at the door of your house to avoid direct contact.

Or maybe someone just needs to hear a friendly, reassuring voice on the phone. Many local social media groups can put you in touch with vulnerable people in your area.

  • Donate to Food Banks: Panic buying and hoarding has left grocery store shelves stocked and drastically reduced supplies to food banks.

You can help seniors, low-income families, and others in need by donating food or cash.

  • Be a calming influence. If your friends or loved ones are in a panic, help them get another perspective on the situation. Instead of alarming or giving credence to false rumors, refer them to reputable news sources.

Being a positive and uplifting influence in these anxious times is good practice for feeling better about your own situation.

  • Be kind to others: the coronavirus is not related to any racial or ethnic group, so don't echo negative stereotypes that only promote prejudice.

With the right perspective and intentions, we can all ensure that kindness and charity spread, even faster than this virus.

Did you find this information helpful? Then share it with your friends.

And if you have any additional advice that others can put into practice to deal with stress, fear and uncertainty, leave us a comment.

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