I’ve had health anxiety for as long as I can remember. Even as a little kid, I was hyper-aware of the health risks the world posed, constantly living in fear of catching a severe stomach virus or some other illness that would leave me hospitalized and dying in my sleep. Everything was a threat.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, I was eventually diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I’ve come a long way since being an overly frightened child and have learned lots of tips and tricks for dealing with anxious thoughts. But, damn, no therapist could have prepared me for a pandemic.
Scrolling through Instagram every day, I’m blown away seeing so many people out and about. Isn’t everyone else freaking out as much as I am?! Aren’t these people nervous? How are they so brave? Of course, some people—like essential workers and people whose jobs don’t offer paid sick leave—haven’t had the option to stay home for much of the pandemic. But I’m talking about people choosing to be out and about for things like socializing and shopping.
Anytime I’m invited somewhere in the age of COVID-19, my fight-or-flight kicks in. As I stare at my phone and contemplate whether or not I should partake in said plans, my palms become drenched in sweat. I get nauseous and short of breath, and inevitably wonder if I’m having a panic attack or if I actually already have coronavirus. Soon after, my thoughts spiral. I imagine all sorts of worst-case scenarios in which I die or my loved ones die because I gave them the virus, and it’s all my fault. You name the horrible outcome, and I’ve probably thought it up before even finishing breakfast.
Needless to say, my answer has been a consistent “no” whenever anyone has tried to make plans with me these days. But at this point, shelter-in-place orders are largely a thing of the past, many people are going back to work, and plenty of retail stores, restaurants, and bars are open. Life is slowly but surely getting back to normal-ish for many, and despite what my fear may tell me, it is possible to do some things at least somewhat safely. Below, I talked to experts about how to deal with my anxiety about getting back out into the world, plus ways to avoid getting (or spreading) the coronavirus in a few different public scenarios.
First, it’s completely normal to be nervous about leaving home right now.
It’s human nature to have trouble coping with uncertainty. “We view uncertainty as a potential threat to our well-being,” Neda Gould, Ph.D., psychologist and associate director of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Anxiety Disorders Clinic, tells SELF. “Sometimes our brain fills in that uncertainty with catastrophic thoughts and possibilities. And if someone already has the predisposition to anxiety, then this is heightened even more so for them.”
Sound familiar? I know it does for me.
Gould notes that anxiety does have a purpose, which is to keep us safe. In that way, it can motivate us to take action. Read: being responsible and wearing a mask when we go out, social distancing, and so on. It’s when anxiety takes on a life of its own and interferes with our functioning that it becomes a problem.
It’s totally and completely reasonable for us to be nervous and cautious when it comes to going about reopening and life these days. We should be cautious. That’s the only way we’re going to stop the spread of this virus. But I’m realizing that I can try to use my anxiety in a practical way, as a reminder to stay safe and follow precautions when I leave my home, without letting it completely control me. But, first, I have to muster up the courage to get out there instead of bailing on plans every time. If you’re in the same situation, Gould has some advice.
Here are some tips for calming anxiety about leaving your home.
Limit your news access (within reason).
Knowledge is power, and it’s important to stay up to date on things like how the coronavirus caseload is progressing in your area. But doing things like constantly checking death tolls over and over again won’t do your anxiety any favors. News overload can be a surefire way to get caught up in thinking about worst-case scenarios, so Gould recommends limiting your access to unnecessary information you know spikes your anxiety and only checking for necessary updates once or twice a day from a reputable resource.
Label catastrophic thoughts.
It’s common for people with health anxiety (or anxiety in general) to think catastrophically—that is, imagining worst-case scenarios and ruminating on them. Gould says to not only notice your catastrophic thinking but also actually label it as such. She says you can say to yourself, “Oh, there it is. I have a tendency to do this, and I was expecting you, catastrophic thought!”
Noticing that your thought is, in fact, catastrophic instead of rational can help your brain realize that this is a cognitive distortion, meaning it’s not rooted in fact or logic, and you don’t have to fall down a rabbit hole of negative what-ifs. Remember: Most of the catastrophic thoughts we have will never happen. Here are more tips for dealing with these kinds of thoughts.
Control what you can, and try to accept what you can’t.
Even though so much feels so uncertain and out of our control, remember that you do have the tools and the knowledge to protect yourself to the best of your ability. To maximize that control, Gould recommends planning ahead for any outings since think more clearly when we aren’t in a heightened state of anxiety. You can even make a mental or physical checklist reminding yourself of the basic protective steps you can take that are in your control, which we’ll cover in just a bit. “When you do become anxious, you can just go back to this list and say, ‘Okay these are the things I know I need to do, and I can do this,’” Gould says.
Then, work on practicing acceptance, which, admittedly, is easier said than done. Still, try to accept the fact that times are uncertain. There’s nothing we can do to change that. Instead, you can focus on accepting that there might be anxiety surrounding this uncertainty, and you will do what you can to ease the anxiety when it arises.
Use a relaxation technique before you head out.
If you find yourself getting really worked up as your plans are approaching and you’re getting ready to leave the house, actively engaging in a relaxation technique can be very helpful. Gould suggests taking a few minutes before you head out the door to center yourself. You can do this by taking some deep breaths, listening to a guided meditation from YouTube or a meditation app, or doing one of these other grounding exercises. These kinds of relaxation techniques can keep you in the here and now rather than falling into the traps of what-ifs.