Coronavirus and Anxiety Disorders
The U.SA. was an already an anxious country…now we are dealing with coronavirus anxiety.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 20% of American adults endure bouts of anxiety at least once a year.
The DSM-5 classifies the symptomatology of at least a dozen different anxiety disorders.
Anxiety is the most widespread mental illness in the USA. It impacts 40 million people every year.
What keeps therapists up at night is that several of these anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and OCD will be aggravated by the current coronavirus global pandemic.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) typically have an overly-anxious reaction to mundane concerns such as bills, work deadlines, and problems with family members.
These everyday concerns that we all have to manage may produce crippling anxiety in those suffering from an anxiety disorder, and coronavirus is surely making life even more difficult for them.
“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Rick Hanson.
If You Already Suffer from Anxiety…Coronavirus May Frustrate Conventional Treatment
Several types of medications are used to treat generalized anxiety disorder, and their effectiveness varies. However, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy has been the gold standard for treating generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for anxiety disorders is based on several fundamental ideas:
- Our problems are based, in part, on how we think about them.
- These problems are also partially based on chronic behavior patterns.
- We can reduce our suffering by improving our coping skills, which can alleviate our symptoms and increase our effectiveness and agency.
CBT therapy sessions usually involve an effort to change how we think about our problems. These strategies might include:
- Stepping back and learning to identify cognitive distortions and then re-contextualize them in the light of reality.
- Attaining insight into the motivations and behaviors of family members and others.
- Acquiring problem-solving skills to better cope with painful life experiences.
- Increasing the level of confidence in our own abilities and thought processes.
The Sum of Our Fears vs. The World We Live In
CBT talk therapy typically involves specific interventions to change maladaptive behaviors. These strategies could include:
- Facing fears directly instead of avoiding them.
- Rehearsing potentially problematic interactions with others through role play.
- Learning to calm your mind and nervous system.
Past research has shown that CBT has been effective in managing anxiety disorders in general and OCD, in particular.
But CBT works because it leverages the difference between the sum of our exaggerated fears and the world we actually live in.
But there is an irony working overtime here.
CBT is predicated on the assumption that that the way we think and interpret life’s events shapes how we behave and, ultimately, how we feel.
For those suffering from anxiety disorders such as GAD and OCD, a Global pandemic with required social distancing and frequent hand washing has essentially closed the gap between fear and reality.
Is it any wonder why their nervous system is telling them:
“See…I was right all along!”
Meditation Can Help with Coronavirus Anxiety…But One Type Works Better For Anxiety Disorders
Meditation can be helpful for anxiety, but we should take a careful look at the research.
You’ve probably read a lot about the benefits of Meditation to treat anxiety.
But a recent study found that “deconstructive forms of meditation” impacted people with anxiety disorders with more unpleasant rumination than other types.
Deconstructive Meditation practice involves examining your negative thoughts and actively exploring toxic thought patterns.
The goal is to generate insights into how you see yourself, other people, and the world at large (Dahl, et al., 2015).
The research found that those people who suffered from anxiety and depression who practiced Deconstructive Meditation had an increased risk of adverse emotional reactions.
Research Looks at How Deconstructive Meditation May Make Anxiety Worse
Researchers asked over 1200 study subjects:
“Have you ever had any particularly unpleasant experiences (e.g., anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world), which you think may have been caused by your meditation practice?”
The results showed that people who practiced Deconstructive forms of Meditation were at an increased risk of unpleasant experiences compared with those using Constructive Meditation.
To Manage Coronavirus Anxiety Use Constructive Methods of Meditation Instead
The study authors said:
“…attentional meditation types primarily train the ability to sustain attention on phenomena without becoming absorbed by them (e.g., mindfulness of breathing), and constructive types primarily nurture cognitive and emotional patterns conducive to well-being (e.g., loving-kindness meditation).”
This is a little known secret of meditation for folks with anxiety disorders; Deconstructive Meditation may harm, but Constructive Meditation can heal.
“Most research on meditation has focussed on its benefits, however, the range of meditative experiences studied by scientists needs to be expanded. It is important at this point not to draw premature conclusions about the potential negative effects of meditation.
Longitudinal studies will help to learn when, for whom, and under what circumstances these unpleasant experiences arise, and whether they can have long-term effects.”
The human mind is not the principal target of the coronavirus, but it can be very much a collateral casualty. Like all of the other such casualties of the crisis—the struggling businesses and the reeling economy and the shuttered schools—it can recover too. Dr. Marco Schlosser.
How To Keep a Positive Attitude…Live in the Now and Plan For Tomorrow
According to new research, one of the best ways to stay positive is a combination of living in the present moment and planning for the future.
Proactive planning is very effective in reducing your stress.
By definition, proactive planning means making plans for how to cope with inevitable problems.
For example, a family that is in-home quarantine from the coronavirus can reduce stress by creating an activity-plan in advance.
Another example is to avoid known stressors in advance.
Focusing on what you can control, such as how you spend your time can alleviate coronavirus anxiety.
Although not every stressful experience can be anticipated, we now that many can.
Dr. Shevaun Neupert is a psychologist at NC State University and is a co-author of the study:
“It’s well established that daily stressors can make us more likely to have bad moods. Our work here sheds additional light on which variables influence how we respond to daily stress.”
How the Study Was Conducted
This research tracked 233 people for over 8 days. Psychologists measured their ability to plan proactively along with their degree of daily mindfulness. Mindfulness is the quality of living in and fully experiencing the present moment.
The research subjects described their daily stressors, how mindful they were, and their overall mood.
The results demonstrated that as long as you are mindful, the more proactive, you are, the better you feel. Being aware in the moment and planning ahead that helps people stay positive.
Professor Neupert said:
“Our results show that a combination of proactive coping and high mindfulness result in study participants of all ages being more resilient against daily stressors.
Basically, we found that proactive planning and mindfulness account for about a quarter of the variance in how stressors influenced negative affect.
Interventions targeting daily fluctuations in mindfulness may be especially helpful for those who are high in proactive coping and may be more inclined to think ahead to the future at the expense of remaining in the present.”
Another New Tool to Combat Coronavirus Anxiety
This technique may be a bit hard to believe. But if you suffer from GAD, and feel piled-on by additional coronavirus anxiety, write down your worst fears in long-hand and read them several times a day.
It may seem bizarre, But if you write something like “that person with a mask who bumped into me in the elevator gave me coronavirus, and I passed it on to my father,” and then read it several times a day, it weakens the impact of the anxious thought. This exposure therapy can be quite helpful in dampening fear and anxiety.
Coronavirus Anxiety and Exercise
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to reduce coronavirus anxiety, a review of the research finds.
Exercise can reduce anxiety symptoms by a whopping 20 percent compared with those who refrain from physical activity.
As little as 20 minutes can make you feel calmer right now — and it works on with most people.
The research tells us that 30 minutes of exercise seems to provide the best protection from coronavirus anxiety.
Another study has shown that nearly 80 percent of people experiencing depression says exercise improves their mood and anxiety most of the time.
Exercise seems to have a lasting positive impact. It helps to reduce stress when people are faced with stressful situations afterward.
But here’s the rub. Around 50 percent of depressed people report that they struggle to find the motivation to start an exercise habit.
Fewer Symptoms of Coronavirus Anxiety
Dr. Matthew Herring, the study’s first author, said:
“Our findings add to the growing body of evidence that physical activities such as walking or weight lifting may turn out to be the best medicine that physicians can prescribe to help their patients feel less anxious.”
The researchers did an analysis of 40 separate randomized controlled trials, including nearly 3,000 people.
The patients included in the studies had a variety of medical problems such as heart disease, cancer, chronic pain, and arthritis.
The results showed that patients who were asked to do some exercise had fewer symptoms of anxiety, such as worry, nervousness, and apprehension.
Adding exercise to your self-care regime can make a significant difference in helping you to better manage your anxiety.
Professor Pat O’Connor, one of the study co-authors, said:
“We found that exercise seems to work with just about everybody under most situations. Exercise even helps people who are not very anxious to begin with become more calm.”
Why Managing Anxiety is So Important at This Time
To the degree that you can manage your anxiety, you are also supporting and bolstering your immune system.
If you’re sheltering in place, start by reframing your current thinking about this coronavirus pandemic.
While it’s a sign of extreme self-care to stay calm and not panic, it’s obviously not an easy task with a pre-existing anxiety disorder.
Your family is probably hunkered down. There is an emotional field permeating your nervous systems, as well as the nervous systems of your spouse and children.
How you grapple with your anxiety matters. The next time you’re struggling, consider how your anxious moments are impacting your children.
They will look to you to make sense of what is going on in the world. Strive to model a calm mind, so they will not catch the virus of your anxiety.
If you apply yourself with fortitude and resilience, you just may be able to better manage your fear and anxiety.
This will pay dividends into your future. If you can curb your anxiety, you could ultimately slow your hair-trigger fight-or-flight response, and calm your over-active central nervous system. This will also help achieve greater clarity and confidence, and help you collaborate better with your partner.
The moment you accept what troubles you have been given…the door will open. Rumi
Accepting Coronavirus Anxiety…But Managing It With Skill.
As things develop during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s one thing just about everybody has in common; more things to worry about that are simply beyond our control.
Whether you’re worried about your health or the health of loved ones, navigating sudden unemployment, or closing your business, we’re all anxious. And a certain amount of anxiety keeps us vigilant and careful.
“A quiet mind does not mean that there will be no thoughts or mental movements at all, but these will be on the surface, and you will feel your true being within, separate from them, observing but not carried away.”~ Sri Aurobindo.
But hopefully, under these challenging conditions, we can see anxiety as a visitor, and not an aspect of our essential, unchanging nature. Here are some excellent mindfulness exercises to boost your mental health during these tough times.
Self-care at this time is essential for all of us. Ask yourself, “what more can I do to take care of myself… or a loved one during this difficult time?”
Dahl, C. J., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). Reconstruction and deconstructing the self: Cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(9), 515-523. DOI:10.1016/j.tics.2015.07.001
Exercise for Mood and Anxiety, Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being, by Michael W. Otto, Ph.D., and Jasper A.J. Smits, Ph.D. (Oxford University Press, 2011)
Schlosser M, Sparby T, Vörös S, Jones R, Marchant NL (2019) Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216643. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216643