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Coping with Covid-related anxiety

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

Anxiety in a Post-COVID World

At the time of this writing, many of us have received COVID booster shots thanks to the vaccination rate in Malaysia. Many restrictions have been gradually lifted in the past few months -there is no longer social distancing in restaurants, we are allowed to cross state and even travel abroad. After almost two years into the pandemic, it would appear that life is gradually returning to normalcy.

Returning to normalcy –excitement or anxiety?

Do you find yourself feeling excited or anxious thinking of returning to normal life? Some individuals might find it manageable to adjust to these changes; however, it is normal and understandable to find ourselves feeling anxious or having mixed feelings at this point. After all, all of us have been exposed to significant COVID related stressors and this has triggered an array of physical, emotional, and economical issues. Although the acute phase has passed, the virus posed serious threats to our lives in the past 2 years and some of us suffered the repercussions in many areas of life.

What anxiety are we experiencing?

COVID-19 has been traumatizing

Emerging research demonstrated that the ongoing global pandemic and the ever-evolving COVID-19 virus has resulted in many traumatic stress symptoms and psychological distress, such as elevated depression and anxiety, sleep disturbance, fear of being infected, intrusive thoughts about the virus and other PTSD symptomatology linked to COVID-19. We have been conditioned to stay away from people in the past 2 years and understandably, it could be anxiety-provoking being around people again due to the potential threat to our physical safety.

From the scientific perspective, when we consciously or unconsciously perceive an event as dangerous, our body automatically triggers a set of physiological and cognitive responses called “fight-or-flight”. It is a set of evolutionary adaptations that promotes our chance of survival in threatening situations. These cognitive and bodily responses are happening for good reasons –to prepare your body to fight or flight (run away) but may be experienced as uncomfortable when they are not needed.

Some of the physiological symptoms include:

  • Racing thoughts

  • Dizzy or lightheaded

  • Difficulties breathing

  • Increased heartbeat

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Nausea

  • Muscle tension

The ambiguity, uncertainty, and unfamiliarity of the current situation

Experiencing anxiety and worry are also common when we encounter situations that are uncertain, and unfamiliar. While we have more freedom with the gradual lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, it also means a lot of uncertainties as we are left to decide whether situations/activities are safe to do. In addition, the ever-changing situation leads to further ambiguity and anxiety about what is going to happen in the future. It is normal for us as humans to want a certain degree of control and certainty in our lives, but it is particularly hard in the context of the pandemic. People who tend to worry a lot are likely to experience more intense anxiety when feeling out of control. As such, some individuals might seek a sense of control by staying in rather than going out as it is the lifestyle they are familiar with during the pandemic.

Anxiety about going out

It is also common to feel anxious during social situations if we haven’t experienced them in a while. When we are accustomed to communicating virtually with someone, it could take a little more effort to navigate through physical socialization. For most people, this feeling tends to fade away after some time; but this transition could be terrifying for people who have social anxiety.

Some degree of hesitance and reluctance to go out is expected during this time. But for some, the fear and anxiety of going out and assimilating back to society is real. The non-medical term “Cave Syndrome” coined by psychiatrist Dr. Arthur Bregman is used to describe these experiences.

Tips to cope with pandemic related anxiety

  1. Be aware that anxiety is normal As Covid-19 poses significant threats to our lives, it is normal to feel anxious. Healthy levels of anxiety can motivate us to take safety precautions to protect ourselves and others, and to keep ourselves up to date with the necessary information. When you experience mild physiological symptoms, remember that it is our fight-or-flight response being triggered and it is normal.

  2. Practice relaxation exercises We can incorporate relaxation exercises into our daily life to cope with mild anxiety symptoms we experience in our body. Practicing deep breathing is a good place to start. Engaging in mindfulness and grounding exercises help us to focus on our bodily sensation and bring ourselves to the present moments. We could use these as helpful “anchors” to direct our attention to the here and now rather than our anxious thoughts. Follow our social media channels to learn more about these coping skills!

  3. Focus on what we can control Although a lot of things might feel beyond our control during this ongoing pandemic, there is always something that is within our control, albeit very little at times. When you find yourself feeling anxious or worried, try assessing the situation objectively to find out if there is anything you could do to make the situation better. Things that are within our control include practical strategies we could implement to feel safer -such as practicing social distancing and frequent sanitization, planning outings ahead to avoid crowded places, encouraging others to perform self-tests before meeting up, as well as practicing coping skills to soothe ourselves.

  4. Make gradual changes at your own pace Some individuals might be eager to return to normal life, while others might take their time to reacclimate. It is alright for us to come out of the crisis at different paces within our own comfort level. It might be helpful to take things slow and make incremental changes within our limits. For instance, you may start exposing yourself to people and public places gradually so that eventually, you will feel more comfortable with going out in general.

  5. Set your boundaries If you don’t feel comfortable attending certain social situations, communicate your feelings openly and honestly. You may let them know what you are comfortable with, such as everyone undergoing a self-test prior to the event. Doing so will help others understand even if they might not agree with your stance. What if I still can’t cope? The tips above might help deal with mild to moderate forms of anxiety, but sometimes it gets more complex and overwhelming, making it hard to handle these feelings alone. If you find yourself having intense anxiety and related emotions for a long period, causing impairment in your functioning, it would be best to seek professional help. It is always better to seek professional treatment in the early stage for optimal results, and studies showed that early intervention is beneficial in addressing these COVID-19 mental health consequences.

The GHC Team

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