Coping with anxiety

Coping with anxiety (manawapā) during and after the pandemic

It’s normal to feel anxious about catching COVID-19, especially if you or someone you love is at increased risk of severe illness. Here are some ideas for how to manage that anxiety.

Anxiety is a normal human emotion that can even be helpful if it alerts us to threats and helps us take steps to protect ourselves. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests anxiety and depression rates around the world have increased by 25% since the pandemic began.

We're living in uncertain times. There are so many things to worry about including our own health and that of others here and overseas. That's on top of fears about finances, school or work and general worries about the future.

If you were already anxious before COVID, you're likely to be feeling more anxious now.

(Health Navigator NZ and Te Whatu Ora | Health New Zealand, Waitematā, 2022)
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What is anxiety?

Anxiety isn’t just in our heads, it's in our bodies too. Common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • difficulty sleeping
  • poor appetite
  • difficulty focussing
  • trouble controlling worrying
  • sweating or trembling
  • difficulty relaxing, restlessness, tension and nervousness
  • hyperventilating, shallow breathing
  • increased heart rate
  • gastrointestinal (gut) issues
  • muscle tension or aches and pains
  • a sense of impending doom, danger or panic.

Although these physical symptoms feel awful and are distressing, they won’t harm you in the short-term. If you're able to let these feelings flow through you and past you, rather than resisting and fighting them, they will ease. 

Learn more about anxiety and how to manage it. Here is information about more anxiety topics.

When is anxiety harmful?

Anxiety is a normal and expected reaction to the pandemic, but ongoing anxiety can become harmful. Feeling stressed and fearful every day takes a toll on health and wellbeing very quickly. People who already experience a lot of anxiety may find their anxiety getting worse and find themselves less able to cope.

Here are some signs that your anxiety is becoming harmful and that you would benefit from support:

  • You can't think about anything other than things related to the pandemic.
  • Most of your pandemic thoughts end up with worst case scenarios.
  • Your anxiety interferes with your daily life eg, you have trouble going to work or focussing on work, or you struggle with things you used to manage like going out in public or having conversations with friends.
  • You want to isolate yourself.
  • You feel hopeless or angry in general.
  • You feel jittery and amped up all the time.
  • You are not eating or sleeping well.
  • You experience physical symptoms like frequent headaches or an upset stomach.

If you're worried about the way anxiety is affecting you, look at the support options below.

How to manage your anxiety

Feeling anxious and uncertain about the future breeds hopelessness and a sense that things, including COVID-19, are out of your control. But there are many things you can do to ease your anxiety. 

Image credit: Pixabay

Don’t avoid your anxiety

Some people deny they are feeling anxious and distract themselves with food, alcohol or TV. But avoiding your anxious thoughts never works. Accepting and facing anxiety reduces it over time. Here's a brief list of things you can do to get there:

Take care of the basics

Anxiety affects us physically as well as mentally so it helps to take care of the basics. 

  • Eat well: Being anxious uses a lot of energy so it's important to eat healthy food – even if you have a reduced appetite.
  • Exercise: Exercise is possibly the most effective tool to reduce the stress hormones circulating in your body. Any sort of exercise (including gentle walking) will help and the more regular the better. 
  • Keep your mind active: When your mind is engaged it is more difficult for anxiety to take hold.
  • Be in nature: Being outdoors is soothing for the nervous system.
  • Make time for hobbies: Doing things you enjoy is a useful method of distracting yourself from anxious thoughts and can lift your mood.
  • Get enough sleep: Sleep is vital to wellbeing. Here are some sleep tips.
Further detail is provided here if you want to read more. 

Set a routine

When things feel out of control a routine helps provide structure and makes things calmer. If you sleep and eat at random times, things start to feel chaotic, and anxiety can get worse.

  • Get up and dressed at roughly the same time each day.
  • Set a time for exercise and your other commitments.
  • Stick to your routine as much as you can.

You're more resilient than you think!

Anxiety makes us overestimate how bad things are likely to be. We also tend to underestimate how well we'll cope, but most people cope better than they think they will. So keep telling yourself how well you've coped in the past and know that you are more resilient than you think.

Stay connected with whānau and friends

It's easy to get isolated when working or studying from home and thoughts become more and more powerful when we are alone. Anxiety can spiral out of control. Take steps to reduce your isolation which can help ease your anxiety. 

Find ways to help others

Anxiety can make you more self-focused but reaching out to support others instead breaks this cycle and feels good. Make it a habit to check on friends, neighbours and whānau who are more vulnerable and ask if they need anything. You will be helping them and yourself at the same time. 

Look after the people around you

Your tamariki may also be anxious, especially if they see that you are worrying. These tips are specifically to help kids cope with anxiety.

Seek out positive people

We tend to catch emotions from the people around us – both positive and negative. Seeking out people who are grounded and level-headed can help improve mood. 

Be kind to yourself

You don’t have to listen to all the mean and negative messages in your head. Just because they seem true doesn't mean that they are. Anxiety is never logical and very rarely accurate. Practise talking to yourself kindly, as you would talk to a good friend. Keep this up even when you are anxious.  

Mindfulness and prayer

Mindfulness and prayer are very useful techniques to lessen anxiety. Here's what you need to know about mindfulness get started.

Breathing

Another good way to reduce anxiety is to learn to manage your breathing. Being anxious makes us breathe more shallowly. This makes your brain think you're not getting quite enough oxygen. Interrupting this cycle will make a huge difference. These videos describe the process. Practicing is important to get results. 

If you feel yourself spiralling into negativity or panic, here's a simple but effective technique. It involves your breath and your body and focussing your attention on the here and now while slowing your breathing until you feel calmer.

List to yourself:

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can hear
  • 3 things you can touch
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste. 

Try practicing this when you are not feeling anxious so you are prepared when you need it.

Limit media coverage

Constant media coverage can increase the sense of danger surrounding the COVID-19 situation. It's important to be informed but too much media can take a toll on your mental health. If the news is one of your anxiety triggers, limit COVID-19 news coverage. Also, make sure you only get news from reliable sources. 

Only try to control what you can control

Anxiety can make us feel powerless. It's important to figure out what you can control and what you can't. Taking action is empowering but trying to manage things outside of your control is throwing energy away and will heighten your anxiety. Things in your control could include making sure everyone in your whare/home has a mask and you have a supply of food, necessary medicines and cleaning products.

“What ifs” are dangerous

"What if" questions can lead to worst case scenario thinking. If you often find yourself asking them, go back to the grounding techniques (using breathing and what you can feel in your body) and carefully re-visit your questions when you're feeling calmer.

Try a mobile app

There's a variety of excellent apps to assist with managing anxiety. Take a look at these anxiety apps for COVID-19. 

COVID-19 positive?

If you're COVID-19 positive, you may be feeling very anxious. Read about how to look after your mental wellbeing.

Resources

The anxiety New Zealand helpline is confidential, free and available 24/7. Call 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)
Living with worry and anxiety amidst global uncertainty is a practical guide for managing anxiety
How you can help guide for helping people with anxiety or mental health concerns
Coronavirus resources and information on COVID-19 and mental health, UK
Well-being tips from the Mental Health Foundation, NZ
Te Hikuwai – anxiety resource for understanding and managing anxiety, NZ
FACE COVID – how to respond effectively to the corona crisis with practical steps
Gratitude Health Navigator, NZ

References

  1. How teenagers can protect their mental health during COVID-19 unicef for every child
  2. Living with worry and anxiety amidst global uncertainty Psychology Tools, UK, 2020
  3. Dubey S, Biswas P, Ghosh R, et al. Psychosocial impact of COVID-19. Diabetes Metab Syndr. 2020 Sep-Oct;14(5):779-788
  4. COVID-19 and anxiety Canadian Mental Health Association, Canada, 2021
  5. How you can help – a guide for friends and family Rethink Mental Health, UK
  6. Coping with coronavirus anxiety Australian Psychological Society, Australia, 2020
  7. Gouzman J, Soskolne V, Dekel R. Framing the meaning of COVID-19 and the psychological responses to it – Insights gleaned from selected theoretical approaches J Health Psychol 2022 online
  8. Gasteiger N, Vedhara K, Massey A, et al. Depression, anxiety and stress during the COVID-19 pandemic – results from a New Zealand cohort study on mental well-being BMJ 
  9.  
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.