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3 Steps to Navigate COVID-19 Anxiety

Mar. 26, 2020 Psychology Today

Medical response centers in Chengdu, China developed an integrative intervention model to address the psychological distress caused by COVID-19 and deliver much needed mental health support1 (Zhang, et al, 2020). This new report utilizes information gathered from natural disasters like earthquakes combined with the current virus outbreak. Overall, they found people need more information, more assessment tools, and more coping methods.

They also advise having and utilizing a Personal Resilience Plan. This must be tailor-made for each of us, by us, since we all respond to stress in different ways through the lens of our unique experiences, values, and expectations. Your resilience plan needs to reflect your values, strengths, and resources. Building this helps ourselves and our families, as well as the communities and organizations we are connected to.

Building your Personal Resilience Plan can take some creativity and self-reflection as well as evaluating your support resources. To get started, I will review the 3 features of resilience that repeatedly emerge in scientific research, 3 types of coping needed to get through challenging times, and offer 3 deeper reflections as an avenue to building personal resilience. I invite you to take a few minutes to answer the reflective questions along the way and write out an emotional emergency preparedness plan with your family that includes outside resources such as community-based support, as well as resilience we nurture within ourselves.

What are 3 common features of resilience?

1) Recovery that is swift and thorough. (Q: What will help me recover from this setback?)

2) Sustainability of purpose in the face of adversity. (Q: What is the purpose that drives me to move forward?)

3) Potential for growth. (Q: What am I learning from this experience?)

What are 3 types of coping?

1) Problem-solving based coping to prepare for or fix things you can.

2) Emotion-based coping to navigate a spectrum of emotions including fear, anger, loneliness, and grief.

3)  Meaning-based coping for events that persist or remain unresolved, that may also spur growth.

But how do I get rid of the anxiety?

During the 1990s HIV/AIDS epidemic, Susan Folkman and colleagues found something profound in their work helping people respond and adapt to the direst of circumstances that included social rejection and stigma along with severe illness and death2-3. They found that life in the face of certain death brings more than sorrow and painful emotions to the heart. People in the worst of situations could experience joyful emotions and engage in positive social interactions. Wellness means much more than the absence of negative emotions (so no need to rid yourself of them before experiencing joy); rather it’s the co-occurance of both troubling and positive emotions. Being able to hold them both closely reflects emotional maturity.

This sentiment is seen in much older communications that we don’t often come across in the scientific literature. A 12th-century German Benedictine abbess, philosopher, and Christian mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, described how we are meant to fly like eagles with two wings: one wing of suffering and one of grace4. We cannot soar with only one of these wings, but need to hold in our awareness the pain along with the glory, simultaneously. This dichotomy is a beautiful albeit challenging tension to hold as we connect deeply with seemingly opposing realities. Some might say we need one to experience the other.

3 Ways to look deeper into your personal resilience:

Here are 3 exercises you might write down on your own or with your family to prepare yourself for the challenges of our current changing situation: 

1)  Recognize what is most difficult for you right now and lean into what you are experiencing. Arguing with your anxiety, escape-avoidance coping (substances, entertainment) and blame will bring temporary relief at best. Reaching out, reaching inward, or upward in new ways will promote flexibility and growth. Share your concerns with others and reflect on what frightens you deeply. Spend time connecting with what is hardest for you right now while also standing into the joy of each breath we are given.

Q: During this crisis, what might you have to let go of? In what ways might you be more connected?

2) Write a story with you as the resilient hero. In what ways are you already resilient? If you experience discomfort thinking of yourself in this way, first start by thinking of someone you know who exhibits openness, flexibility, grit, and adapts to new challenges again and again. Then think back to a difficult time in your life where you persevered, changed course, thought outside the box, and applied skills that brought about positive change. Describe it in detail.

Q: What are the attributes you have that allow you to continue in the face of hardship? How have you already made the world a better place?

3) Take wise and compassionate action. There are some scary knowns and unknowns right now. Move forward with the next right thing and realize this may change from moment to moment. Invite clarity about what the next mindful action you could take is and how it relates to what you value most.  Center yourself in each decision with breath to engage those parts of your rational and compassionate brain. Practice trusting your internal reserves as well as how you might support others.

Q: How would you like to look back on this pandemic years from now? What role did you play?

One thing we can count on: everything is transient. Our security is that everything changes.

Q: How might the current difficulties transform you?

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