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How to cope with fear and anxiety about COVID-19

Psychology professor offers strategies to maintain positive mental health during pandemic
By: Antoinette Mercurio
April 03, 2020
A woman looks down at her phone outside in the sun.

Staying in virtual contact with friends and family while physical distancing is one way to ease anxiety. Photo credit: Meghan Schiereck on Unsplash.

While everyone continues to adjust to this new normal of physical distancing and vigilantly washing our hands, another widespread development has been growing.

Fear and anxiety.

Although the two are often used interchangeably, fear and anxiety are two separate feelings. Martin Antony, psychology professor in the Faculty of Arts, distinguishes the two as fear being an emotional response to an immediate threat and, “anxiety is more the angst and worry associated with a future-oriented threat.”

“Probably what people are experiencing more is anxiety,” Antony said. “If we look at things that predict anxiety, one is uncertainty. We all like to know what's going to happen. So for example, even in this situation, if we all knew that July 1, everything is going back to normal then this might not be as bad. We would just wait it out.

“There's actually quite a bit of literature on the role of uncontrollability and unpredictability in anxiety. When we know what's going to happen, and we can control what happens, we're much more comfortable. When we're not in control and we have no idea what's going to happen, we're much less comfortable.”

How anxiety shows up

Anxiety can manifest in different ways. The most common are: 

  • physically - for example, racing heart, changes in breathing, shakiness or dizziness; 
  • cognitive - people’s thinking process is affected so that they may interpret a situation as more dangerous than it really is; and 
  • behaviour - people might avoid certain situations, take extra precaution to protect themselves or go into problem-solving mode. 

“Most of us use a mix of these different strategies and they can all be helpful in certain circumstances,” Antony said. “But what gets people in trouble sometimes is they'll overuse certain strategies in situations where the strategies actually cause them more problems.”

PDF fileThe Canadian Psychological Association, external link notes that “infectious diseases, like any life stressor, challenge the way we cope. Whether we learn about them on television or experience them personally, we can feel upset, fearful and anxious as a result, both for our own personal safety and that of our family, friends, colleagues, and community. Stressful events can also bring up feelings and memories of previous traumatic events thereby compounding the distress that we feel.”

Coping strategies

While everyone experiences anxiety differently, there are ways to help keep it from getting unmanageable. In this Ryerson Today article, Thrive RU's Diana Brecher, a clinical psychologist, offered specific tips to build resilience in coping with COVID-19. Further to that, Anthony suggests a combination of actions that can help maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

“Social support is a big one; physical exercise is also  useful for managing stress and anxiety. In general, we encourage people to engage in healthy lifestyle habits, such as healthy eating and getting a good night's sleep,” he said. “So, not staying up super late and trying to get up at the same time every day. Establish a routine.

“One thing we're hearing a lot from our students is that with less structure and less routine, it’s hard to stay focused. Some are even forgetting what day it is. And so one of the things I'm trying to do with the students who I supervise, for example, is to introduce more structure. I'm meeting with my graduate students weekly, we're doing group meetings, setting goals for the week, and reporting back on how those goals are being met.”

Above all else, Antony says people should give themselves permission to experience whatever they are feeling.

“Allow yourself to react whatever way you’re reacting. This is a temporary situation,” he said. “If your anxiety is “too high” right now, in a few months, it's probably not going to be. Fighting what you're experiencing in the moment can sometimes keep the anxiety alive, or even more intense. So cut yourself some slack, give yourself permission to experience a range of emotions, and step in to make changes if that's something that you want to do.”

For more information on the psychological impacts of COVID-19, the Canadian Psychological Association PDF filereleased a fact sheet, external link. Anxiety Canada suggests what to do, external link if you’re worried about coronavirus. 


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