Seven Ways to Cope With Anxiety During a COVID Holiday Season

Posted on 12/16/20

With the very real fear of catching COVID-19 overshadowing all decision-making, the holidays just won't be the same for most West Virginians. Many of us are experiencing anxiety, sadness and even anger at the situation in which we find ourselves.  "What jumped out at us as the oncoming holidays approach is the amount of sadness people have as they think about it," says Robert Stephen, Vice President of Health and Caregiving at AARP, speaking about the results of a recent AARP survey. 

This holiday season presents a perfect storm for anxiety. 

This has been a big anxiety trigger for a lot of people," says Stewart Shankman, chief psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University, of the coronavirus outbreak.  But he and other mental health experts note that it's important to learn how to handle anxious thoughts and get help if necessary - in part because anxiety can impede the body's ability to fight infection. 

"Anxiety suppresses the immune system," says Jane Timmons-Mitchell, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.  "So, anything we can do to not be anxious is helpful." 

These ideas from the experts may help keep your anxiety under control. 

Limit News Consumption 
It's important to know the facts and what you can do to protect yourself and to take all precautions - but it's not going to help stress levels to obsessively watch the news, says Shankman. 

"The biggest source of anxiety is uncertainty," he says, "not knowing what's going to happen, when it's going to happen, how long this is going to last. And we don't know. So, trying to know, trying to resolve that uncertainty, is counterproductive. It's going to make you more anxious." 

Shankman says that he's not suggesting denial. 

Rather, it's "sort of accepting this is the current situation and not letting it interfere with your life." 

Practice Calming Techniques 
Different people relax in different ways, but if you feel particularly anxious you might try deep breathing, taking a warm bath, or sitting with your pet, says Neda Gould, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medical School.  "Alternatively, try mindfulness: bringing attention to the experience and kind of allowing it to be there, and not judging it and knowing that it will pass."  If you need mindful or meditative guidance, try free apps such as Calm; Breethe; UCLA Mindful, an app developed by the University of California, Los Angeles Mindful Awareness Research Center; and Mindfulness Coach, from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Move Your Body 
"If people are able to just do a little bit of exercise, just walk around or stretch - just to sort of calm the tension in your body, it will help," says Shankman. "If you calm the tension in your body, you calm the tension in your mind." 

Connect with Loved Ones 
Call, email or videochat with family members, especially if you are feeling isolated or you know that they are.  You may find that they have more time to talk than they usually do because so many people are home from school and work, Timmons-Mitchell points out. "There might be some grandchildren that you don't get to communicate with a lot, but now maybe they could because those people aren't as busy." 

Listen to Music, Find Activities That Bring Joy 
With symphonies, opera houses, ballets and theaters shutting down or losing their audiences to quarantine measures, many are bringing their offerings online: The Berlin Philharmonic, for instance, gave a free livestreamed concert on March 12, while playing to an empty concert hall. The Philadelphia Orchestra is offering its recent live performance of "BeethovenNOW: Symphonies 5 & 6" online, as well.  "Watching a concert like that is going to help somebody feel better, and probably less anxious," says Timmons-Mitchell. 

Get Stuff Done 
Tackle a hobby you've wanted to explore, or a project you never seem to have time for.  Maybe you have some watercolor painting supplies in a closet, or a big box of old photos that you've been meaning to transform into a keepsake album. Accomplishing tasks such as cleaning clothes closets or garages can be rewarding, while diverting your attention from anxious thoughts. 

Find Ways to Laugh 
Humor is a wonderful coping mechanism in times of crisis.  Turn to sources you find funny, whether they're movies or TV shows, or certain friends who you know will brighten your mood. 

Need Help? 
If you feel like your anxiety is getting extreme, interfering with your daily functioning, for example, ask for help. Reach out to your doctor, or a trusted confidant. 

Sometimes, just hearing a friendly voice on the other end of the line can help in challenging times. We may be isolated, but we don't have to be alone. Trained AARP Friendly Voice volunteers will provide a call to say hello. To request a call, call us directly at 1-888-281-0145, leave us your information and we will call you back.

The West Virginia Emotional Strength Line is another option. It is intended to help West Virginians manage their stress - by offering a sympathetic ear and by directing folks to additional resources to get further help. You can call the West Virginia Emotional Strength Line at 1-877-HELP-304 or go to help304.com to chat with someone online. 

If you're starting to have thoughts about self-harm get help immediately, says Timmons-Mitchell, who suggests calling the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. "They have a lot of tools at their disposal, and they're trained to provide really good services," she says.  "People shouldn't feel hesitant to call them because they want to hear from you."

This story is provided by AARP West Virginia. Visit the AARP West Virginia page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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Find information about getting a COVID-19 vaccine in your state. CDC information is available at cdc.gov/coronavirus; additional AARP information and resources are at aarp.org/coronavirus. En español, visite aarp.org/elcoronavirus.

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