Coronavirus anxiety is real. Here are mental health tips to help.

Worried about loved ones? Going stir-crazy in isolation? Scared of what might happen next? Here’s what to do.
Esther Gianan, of Tampa a retired registered nurse prays for those who are affected by the coronavirus during Mass at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa, Florida on Friday, March 6, 2020.
Esther Gianan, of Tampa a retired registered nurse prays for those who are affected by the coronavirus during Mass at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa, Florida on Friday, March 6, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published March 13, 2020|Updated March 13, 2020

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Do you feel like the world is falling apart? You aren’t the only one. But there are strategies to help ease the stress of the coronavirus outbreak.

The first thing to keep in mind is that most coronavirus patients recover. Even in these uncertain times, when the pandemic is just starting and the future is unsettled, there’s a lot you can do now and in the weeks to come to focus on what you can control.

Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, a nonprofit dedicated to mental health issues, shared tips to help combat stress and anxiety in the midst of the pandemic, economic uncertainty and everything else that has gone wrong — or is about to.

If staying informed is stressing you out

Continue to stay informed by paying attention to reliable news outlets (like the Tampa Bay Times’ free coronavirus coverage) but set boundaries for how often you tune in. Do not let the 24-hour news cycle consume you.

"There’s not so much breaking news or breaking information that you’re going to be so far behind if you just get it in the morning and then again at the evening,” Gionfriddo said.

Focus on the tasks you are currently working on. Stick to your normal routine as much as circumstances will allow. And focus on fun things you can do to enjoy life instead of staying glued to an endless stream of updates.

“What we’re seeing today is unfolding in real time and it’s so easy to get caught up in the next diagnosis and the next piece of news ...," Gionfriddo said. "The most important thing is for people to kind of sit back, listen to what they’ve heard and recognize that once we get better certainty and understand how this disease runs its course, we’ll all be feeling a whole lot better.”

If you’re worried about the fate of the world around you

President Trump cut off travel from Europe for 30 days. The NBA suspended its season. Tom and Rita Hanks both tested positive for COVID-19. All that happened in less than an hour Wednesday night.

It’s easy to feel powerless when so much is changing. Focus on what you have power over, what you can act on and what you have control over, like voting.

“It’s a good way to say, ‘I’ve got only a tiny bit of power here, but I can exercise on a global way,'” Gionfriddo said.

Another thing you can control is how you frame your thoughts.

“What do I post on social media?" Gionfriddo said. “How do I talk to this about this to my family and friends? How do I frame my own thoughts and then express them in a way that is beneficial that can help people move forward? How do I reduce the number of arguments I get into?”

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Think about the events you’d like to attend when the world returns to some semblance of normalcy. Instead of dwelling on the NBA games you won’t be able to watch or the plane tickets you can’t use, make plans for six months down the line. Even if you don’t actually end up acting on them, thinking positively about the future can help boost your mood in the present.

If you’re worried about your loved ones

The elderly and those with compromised immune systems are the most at risk. It’s natural to worry about their health, but combat negative feelings by working on a plan. Check in with your loved ones and make sure they have the things they need, even if they insist they’re fine.

Bring groceries to your grandparents, or have an order shipped to their home, so they don’t have to venture into crowds. If your elderly neighbors are on medication, help them double check how much they have left or help them order refills.

Staying connected can also be a big help. Call or video chat with those long distance relatives that you rarely reach out to. It’s also a great time to send handwritten letters.

If you are vulnerable to the virus and people are worrying about you, let your loved ones help.

“You’re part of a bigger family and a bigger community and it may not be for you," Gionfriddo said. "We’ve got to be reassuring our our family members that we’re taking care of ourselves.”

If you’re cooped up...

... In self isolation

Take time to do more of the hobbies that you love, like crafting, gardening or cooking. Try to stay away from excessively unhealthy habits, such as drinking too much or eating too much junk food. This could leave you feeling even more stressed out.

As time passes, feelings of loneliness may increase. Reach out to your network of family and friends. Text back instead of letting messages go unanswered. Even better: Call or video chat instead of texting.

... Working from home

Companies across the country are telling their employees to work from home. There are strategies for dealing with that, too.

“You can often be as productive, in terms of the actual work output, in about half the time as you are in the office," Gionfriddo said. “But the problem is you’re losing the personal contact, the interaction, and you lose productivity over time.”

Getting informal feedback, like getting stopping by a coworker’s office for advice, is harder when people work remotely. Gionfriddo recommends using the technology that’s available from home to better feel connected, like instant messaging your coworkers or video chatting into a meeting.

You should also enjoy the more casual atmosphere of working at home while you can.

“Feel good about the fact that you don’t have to put your good pants on to do it,” he said.

If you’re already prone to anxiety

One in six Tampa Bay area residents suffers from depression, an unfortunate fact in a state that’s ranked 43rd in access to mental health care. Here’s how to alleviate that:

Focus on what you can control, like making a plan with your family and stocking your pantry in case you need to camp out at home for a bit. Practice deep breathing. Exercise, eat well and try to get enough sleep.

Panic attacks can happen even when you’re feeling calm. The symptoms of a panic attack include a combination of sweating, feeling like you’re choking, experiencing chest pain or discomfort, dizziness, feeling chilly or hot, and heart palpitations.

Panic attacks can sometimes share the same signs and symptoms of a heart attack, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Gionfriddo urges those who are at risk of a heart attack and experience those symptoms to call their doctor or cardiologist immediately.

“You’re going to have trouble breathing ... you’re going to have some pains," he said. “And it’s important to recognize that not only that could be something else, but you don’t want to mess around with that."

Of course, deciding whether to go to a hospital during a pandemic is complicated. Said Gionfriddo: “Try not to rush into a healthcare setting because there are a lot of sick people there and you don’t want to become sick on top of it."

Chronic mental health problems can also get much worse during stressful events like a pandemic. If you need to find a mental health professional, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Additionally, the following 24/7 crisis hotlines provide free, confidential emotional support:

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.



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