Tips on staying centered despite COVID-19 anxiety

Overwhelming anxiety can have a marked impact on the quality of our lives - our overall functioning, our relationships, our work, our parenting abilities and our self-care. At the AMITA Health Behavioral Medicine Institute, we believe healthy strategies to manage anxiety are critical to our physical and mental health and general well-being.

Managing one's reaction to stressors, such as COVID-19, is no easy task, especially when there is such a heightened level of anxiety and concern in our community. During times like these, you might find it helpful to borrow a few techniques from the AMITA Treatment Framework (adapted from Barlow's Unified Protocol for the Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders) - the same techniques our therapists use to help people focus on better understanding their emotions and identify how their responses to them might be making things worse.

To help you stay centered and "anchored in the present," we recommend the following:

• Manage your information intake

Take breaks from constant exposure to the news, the internet and other media. It's allowed.

• Skip "safety behaviors"

A "safety behavior" is an action intended to make you feel safer but doesn't actually make you safer. A coronavirus example might be the hoarding of bottled water and toilet paper. Typically, these behaviors trigger heightened anxiety rather than lower it. Recognizing them is the first step to avoiding them.

• Avoid "thinking traps"

Prime offenders include catastrophizing and "black and white thinking."

• Stay connected

Keep in touch with your family and friends via social media and phone calls. Have you tried a "Zoom party" yet?

• Stick to a routine

Even if you are quarantined, structure can be crucial to managing anxiety. Schedule time to exercise, go outside, read that book you always wanted to read, start a project, reach out to others. You might even find it helpful to write your new activities on a calendar. Pair your routine with a productive sleep schedule, with a consistent bedtime and wake time.

• Practice "mindful emotion awareness"

Anxiety often leads us to worry about what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. This tends to make us feel even worse. Focusing on the present may make the situation feel more manageable.

Just a few minutes of meditation, yoga or mindfulness each day will help reduce your reactivity to anxiety. At the AMITA Health Behavioral Medicine Institute, we suggest trying the following anchoring steps.

1. Focus on your breathing

2. Observe what you are thinking, your physical sensations and your behavior

3. Ask yourself if your thoughts, physical feelings and behaviors are consistent with what is happening in the present or focused on the past or future

• Rethink your thinking

Some anxiety and worry about COVID-19 and the economic situation is certainly warranted. Avoiding or fighting this feeling is a bit like being in quicksand; the more you struggle, the more stuck you get. Instead, examine your immediate "automatic negative thoughts" to see if there are other ways you could think about the situation.

Instead of: "I will go stir crazy staying home," think: "This time will give me a chance to accomplish some tasks I would never otherwise get around to"

• Be kind to yourself

Try not to be self-critical or judgmental. And if you need help, it's strength, not weakness, to ask for it. Get support from those around you and don't hesitate to get coaching from a therapist.

- Clifton "Cliff" Saper, PhD, is the lead clinical psychologist with the AMITA Health Behavioral Medicine Institute. He specializes in clinical training, crisis response, diversity issues, wellness/prevention and individual, family and group therapy.