COVID-19 and Mental Health: Normalizing Anxiety Can Improve Resiliency

Last week I traveled to an event just north of Chicago to speak with a group of HR professionals on the topic of mental health in the workplace. Nothing unusual about that, since I speak at these types of events fairly often -- but this event felt very different. Before we even began, I overheard this bit of conversation between two attendees:

“Did you see we’re up to 8 deaths now in the US?”

“Yes, that nursing home in Seattle.”

Very quickly it became clear there was an extra, uninvited guest at the seminar: Anxiety. I later learned that a large number of attendees had cancelled at the last minute, in most cases because of fear of contracting COVID-19, the novel coronavirus making its way around the world.

Since then, of course, the situation has only become more concerning. As a mental health professional, I know that anxiety and fear are completely normal responses to potential threats and uncertainty -- and the current COVID-19 situation certainly qualifies as a potential threat with a whole lot of uncertainty! In fact, it would be much more abnormal if you didn’t feel at least some degree of anxiety or worry around COVID-19.

That said, anxiety is at best uncomfortable and, at worst, can snowball into a source of great distress for some people. So what can you do to stay resilient during this scary time? Here are three steps to take that may seem basic, but are worth trying:

  1. Stay informed – but be selective. Follow up-to-date guidance and information from reputable sources like the CDC, WHO, and local health officials. Just as important, avoid hearsay, speculation, and information from untrustworthy sources.
  2. Take steps to reduce your risk of exposure to COVID-19. Taking positive actions like washing your hands frequently can help you feel more in control. Follow guidance from the CDC and local officials on restrictions and recommended precautions around travel and large gatherings.
  3. Give your mind a break. Make time for safe activities that are incompatible with stress and worry -- like watching a movie or catching up with friends over the phone or video chat.

If you’re still feeling highly anxious or overwhelmed, you may want to consider speaking with a professional, such as a licensed behavioral health clinician. If you have access to an employee assistance program at work, take advantage of free counseling services. Tele-therapy is another convenient and typically lower-cost way to get help.

Remember that anxiety and stress are completely normal reactions. Rather than try to talk yourself out of worrying, give yourself a program to follow: Staying well-informed, taking common sense precautions, and finding time to clear your mind. And know that it’s OK to seek help from a professional if you’re having trouble managing stress and anxiety on your own.

Register for Mercer US Health News to receive weekly e-mail updates.