If your anxiety surrounding COVID-19 is higher than ever, science says there’s a reason


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Over the course of the last week—since COVID-19 became a legitimate concern in New York City, where I live—my anxiety has been debilitating. For days, I’ve been on the verge of tears—or in tears. My heart is pounding and there’s a knot in my stomach that my usual “calm down” toolkit of exercise, meditation, and a daily dose of prescribed SSRIs (aka antidepressants), hasn’t been able to fix.

These feelings have made doing even the smallest things, like feeding myself or getting dressed in the morning, seem impossible. And I know I’m not alone in this. Talking to friends and scrolling through Instagram, it’s clear that we are all stressed and scared in a way that’s hard to conceptualize, and it’s only gotten worse as the streets—in NYC, at least—have begun to clear out and take on an eerie sense of apocalyptic “WTF is going on”-ness.

There’s a scientific reason as to why our brains respond to uncertain situations—like a pandemic with no known cure—with anxious thoughts and feelings. “The ability to use past experiences and information to predict the future allows us to increase the odds of desired outcomes, while avoiding or bracing ourselves for future adversity,” reads a 2013 study out of Nature Reviews Neuroscience. “Uncertainty diminishes how efficiently and effectively we can prepare for the future, and thus contributes to anxiety.”

Right now, as we’re still learning more about COVID-19 seemingly every hour, there is a lot of uncertainty. “This is a new virus that seemed to appear out of the blue, it’s spreading rapidly, people can be asymptomatic and still pass it on, and there’s still no cure or vaccine,” says Caroline Vaile Wright, PhD. “With all of those unknowns, even if you’re somebody who’s not necessarily worried about your own health, you may be worried about others in your life who are more vulnerable.”

In other words: There are a lot of reasons why you might be feeling upset or distressed, and getting sick is only one of them.

All of these unknowns have begun to manifest themselves in ways that impact our day-to-day lives, disrupting the routines we rely on for a sense of normalcy. Many of us are telecommuting for an indeterminate amount of time (hello, it’s me from my couch), isolating ourselves for the sake of our own and other people’s safety, and not totally sure about what’s going to happen next.

“Part of what’s really challenging with uncertainty is that it interferes with our ability to plan, and it reminds us of all the things that are out of our control,” says Dr. Wright. “And any time that things start to feel out of our control, we tend to reach for things that feel in our control.” In addition to driving people to panic-buy dozens of rolls of toilet paper, this can also trigger things like eating and substance abuse disorders, because these things can “make you feel like you’re gaining control on a particular area of your life when everything else feels out of control,” says Dr. Wright.

“Part of what’s really challenging with uncertainty is that it interferes with our ability to plan, and it reminds us of all the things that are out of our control.” —Caroline Vaile Wright, PhD

Depending on where you are in the world right now (some major cities, like New York and Los Angeles, have shut down bars and restaurants while San Francisco residents are required to stay home), you may be feeling this more intensely. “There is a felt sense of anxiety in the air—the environments we walk through every day have changed and we’re affected by that,” says psychotherapist Sarah Crosby.  “And anxiety is a social contagion, which means we can ‘catch’ anxiety [from] others. Our own levels of anxiety can become triggered by speaking with someone else who is anxious—something we’ve been doing a lot more of recently.”

It doesn’t help that one of our main defenses against COVID-19 is social distancing. “We are by nature people who need each other and need connection,” says Dr. Wright, adding that this type of isolation “absolutely” makes these anxious feelings worse. “Socially connecting to others, even virtually—particularly those in vulnerable populations who have had to quarantine or self-isolate—is really important.”

Since it’s impossible to avoid all of the uncertainty that’s happening right now, Dr. Wright instead suggests that we try to develop a resistance to it. “It doesn’t mean you have to like it or approve of what’s going on, but if you can accept that this is how it is right now, you can stop trying to fight it and develop some patience to and understanding that it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better,” she says.

The best way to do this, pros say, is to rationally prepare for what might happen: If you have to quarantine for two weeks, do you have the supplies to be able to do that? If your kids’ school gets cancelled, or you have to work from home, what can you do to make that sustainable? “It’s taking this seriously, but also recognizing that panicking is an ineffective way to handle the situation right now,” says Dr. Wright.

It’s also important to practice self-care through sleeping, eating healthfully, taking care of your mental health, connecting with others, and maintaining as much of your normal routine as is safe and possible. And while it may tempting to refresh the news every few minutes to stay up to date with what’s going on, give yourself permission to take a break.

As I sit in my makeshift home office, with candles lit and enough canned chickpeas and toilet paper to last for the next two weeks, I’ve muted the news notifications on my phone, put on pants, and am doing the best I can to get through this. Which for now, is all any of us can do.

These are the myths that doctors want you to stop believing at COVID-19. And here’s how to maintain human contact in a time of social isolation.

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