COVID-19 Resources

Understanding and Managing Anxiety

May. 13, 2020

While the world works to flatten the curve of COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to flatten our anxiety levels. 

According to the Disaster Stress Hotline—a 24-hour, 7-day a week, 365-day a year, national hotline that provides counseling for people facing emotional distress—mental health needs rose over 891% last month.

Many Americans are experiencing the same concerns like, “How will we make ends meet?” “Will I have a job in two weeks?” “I wonder if my parent(s) will contract COVID-19.”

Our muscles might tighten thinking about the future. Our hearts might begin to race, we might become short of breath and thoughts could become unclear.

Kate Chard, Ph.D., director of the UC Health Stress Center and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, specializes in anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As our present and future days become more complicated and stressful, Dr. Chard answered some pressing questions to provide much-needed clarity for our mental health and wellness.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress, both positive (getting married) and negative stress (dealing with an illness). It is part of your body’s way of moving into action to manage the demands (physical, emotional or psychological) being placed on you as part of the situation.

Are there different levels/forms of anxiety?

Absolutely. Most of us experience some level of anxiety at some point in our life. Taking a test, going for a job interview, having a child, difficulty with finances or caring for older parents are just some examples. But the level of anxiety can often go up if we are experiencing more stress, or if we do not have good resources to cope with our stress.

Is anxiety genetic or can anyone have it?

Both. Anxiety does have a genetic component and people tend to have higher levels of anxiety if their parent(s) do. But anxiety is something most people experience to some degree or another. It is just the frequency and level of anxiety that tends to differ between people.

What are common symptoms of anxiety? How do you know if you have it?

People experience anxiety differently, but some common symptoms are excessive worrying, agitation, restlessness or fatigue, problems concentrating, irritability, tension, difficulty sleeping and fear. If left untreated, anxiety can lead to headaches, loss of sleep, high blood pressure, jaw pain and chest pain to name a few.

What can trigger anxiety?

Anything can trigger anxiety, and people are different about what makes them anxious. But there are some similar situations where most people tend to feel some anxiety, such as job interviews, having a first child or financial strain. People frequently feel anxious about things that are new or different, unexpected and when they have less control over the situation.

Is there a difference between stress and anxiety?

Stress is the response to any kind of threat in a situation, and anxiety is a reaction to the stress. Over time if left untreated, anxiety can turn into a mental health disorder that may need intervention.

How can someone manage anxiety at this time?

Exercise, relaxation techniques, mindfulness, looking realistically at the situation and include all of the facts. The more we read about stressful situations, even if they are not our own, the more anxious we may feel. It is important to limit our news intake to one or two times a day maximum and to focus on things other than COVID-19. While it may seem like COVID-19 is taking over our lives, and it is definitely shaping our reality, we still likely have many aspects of our lives still in place: friends, families and hobbies that we can still focus on, just with more distance.

How can you help other people manage anxiety (talking to stressed family members, friends, coworkers, etc.)?

Try to help them look at the facts, not the scary online postings from other anxious people. Also, have them focus on what is good in their life. What do they have to be thankful for in this moment? What do they look forward to doing in the first days, weeks and months after COVID-19 social distancing restrictions are lifted?

At what point should people seek professional help? Are there certain symptoms to be watchful of?

If someone is so impacted by their anxiety that it prevents them from functioning in an area of their life (school, work, daily tasks, taking care of family) then it might be worthwhile to have a psychological assessment performed by a professional. We know that if someone develops an anxiety disorder, the best treatments are forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and they often take only five to 15 weekly sessions to be effective.

How can I help my child with anxiety during COVID-19?

The big thing is to try not to show a great deal of anxiety around your children, as they will pick up on it. If your children are anxious, do not dismiss it, but listen to their concerns and try to help their anxiety by using logic and reassurances.

Keeping up with COVID-19 news can be exhausting, especially while managing life’s routine duties too. In this era of social distancing and quarantining, feeling overwhelmed has become a normal feeling, but we can reduce that by taking steps to take care of ourselves and those around us during this difficult time.

Lean into these professional tips from Dr. Chard, but if it feels unmanageable, schedule an e-visit with UC Health Stress Center by calling 513-558-5872.