Worry and Anxiety About Coronavirus

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

Your worry and anxiety about coronavirus is normal and understandable

Increased worry and stress at this complicated time is completely normal. You may notice a number of signs of anxiety in your own body. These might include:

  • Pounding heart or increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • Irritability
  • Tense muscles
  • Insomnia or other sleep issues (waking up frequently, for example)
  • Stomach pains, feeling sick, or digestive trouble
  • Headaches
  • Sweating, trembling or shaking

Be patient with yourself

These symptoms are simply your body’s way of trying to protect you. When your brain senses danger (whether real or perceived) it starts to trigger a fight or flight response (in a “better safe than sorry” kind of way) to get you to safety. It is telling you to run away or fight the perceived danger, and it prepares you, physically, to do this. Every symptom is part of that clever process. For example, a burst of adrenaline and an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, energize you and make you alert. This is connected with feeling sweaty or shaky, an increase in your heart rate (which can feel scary), and a change (quickening) in your breathing which can make you feel out of control.

These feelings will pass

Do not be annoyed or cross with yourself, or feel that you “should be coping” better. The feelings will pass when your body feels safe again. However, it is important to try to manage the anxiety, both for yourself and your children. I read a really helpful quote yesterday. Here it is:

If you can support your child (or children) to feel safe and contained, they will remember this as a time of togetherness and it will strengthen your bond. The ideas below are designed to help you with this.

Strategy one: Shift your focus to what you can control

This is a strategy to help you sift through your worries and concerns. If you have worries on many different levels at the moment (immediate family, extended family, work, businesses, society, the world), congratulations, you are normal! However, we can feel less out of control if we can put aside those worries that we can do nothing about. Take a look at the diagram below.

It will probably be helpful for you to write out your own version of this on a piece of paper.

Here are some examples of things I cannot control right now:

  1. Schools opening or closing.
  2. Flights/trips/holidays being cancelled.
  3. The NHS being extremely busy.

Here are some examples of things I can control:

  1. Eating well and ensuring my children eat well.
  2. Making a plan of activities to keep myself and my children busy/engaged/happy if we are off school/work.
  3. Calling my elderly relatives once a day.

Make your own list. Then make an intention to focus on the things in the circle, that you can control. When the other things come into your mind, do not be cross with yourself, just acknowledge them and choose to re-focus on the things you can control on your list.

Strategy two: Limit access to the news to limit worry and anxiety about coronavirus

The news, on TV, in print, and online, is not balanced. For understandable reasons, there is a focus on bad news (for example, people dying, rather than people recovering, from coronavirus). Therefore, to help your brain to be balanced, try to limit your access to the news. Much more importantly, limit your child’s access to the news. Children’s brains have not yet developed the ability to balance their fears with rational thoughts – this comes in the teenage years and early adulthood when connections between the frontal cortex and the limbic system strengthen.

Strategy three: Work on your breathing, and consider exploring or returning to mindfulness

Deep, slow breathing helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system – the part of the nervous system that calms and soothes us.

YouTube video

Mindfulness is not just about breathing but there is a strong connection. Mindfulness also teaches us to observe our thoughts and choose which ones to engage with, which is a crucial skill in the current climate, with worries and anxiety about coronavirus threatening to overwhelm our brains at times. I highly recommend the four week NHS-approved online course called BeMindfulOnline. This is suitable for adults and teenagers. I did the course back in 2012 and it was life-changing!

If you prefer books, I recommend Finding Peace in a Frantic World, which comes with audio CDs. There is also a website containing some lovely free meditations for you to try. For children, Sitting Still Like a Frog is fantastic, especially at bedtime.

Strategy four: Focus on activities that soothe the senses

When the nervous system is on high alert (see above), all the senses are working very hard, and you may notice that you feel increased fatigue. Every family is different so write down some activities that soothe your senses and your child’s, and schedule at least one every day. This will contribute to a calmer nervous system. Think of all the senses. For example:

Taste: Make soothing hot chocolate or a comforting casserole.

Touch: Have a sensual bubble bath. Wrap your child tightly in a blanket.

Smell: Go outside and explore the smells of the plants and flowers you can see.

Hearing: Focus on using a calming tone of voice in your family, play calming music.

Vision: Spend time making at least one room into a calm, uncluttered space where your mind (and your child’s) can rest if you need to spend a lot of time at home.

Overall, getting outside is really crucial if you possibly can. There is research showing that the sights, sounds and smells contribute positively to wellbeing, and are calming for the nervous system.

Strategy five: Keep up as many routines as you can

Children generally thrive on structure and routine, as do adults. Routine and predictability are especially important in times of uncertainty such as these. Routines make us feel a little more in control, and enhance feelings of safety. With so many routines going out the window (schools, clubs and so on), preserve as many routines at home as you can. If you have movie nights with your child on a Friday, and you go for a walk on a Saturday, then keep these going.

If children and parents are at home, it can be tempting to let routines slip. For example, we may sleep later in the mornings, allow the children to stay up later, and our mealtimes may become less regular. Try to counter this if you can, to help everybody feel more contained.

Strategy six: Notice and create some positives out of adversity

This can be really hard if you are feeling overwhelmed. Come back to this one another time if you need to.

Even though we are facing challenges ahead, we are also facing some things that will have silver linings. We may get to spend more quality time with our immediate families. Our children may have a chance to try new things, including home projects that they may never have thought of trying. Here is a list of resources which I believe are free (but I have not verified this).

Help your child to think about some of the positives that are coming out of this crisis on a global scale, such as the benefits to the environment. Here is a recent example of good news that I found!

If you are looking for more direct support take a look at my online course for parents, Outsmart Anxiety.