Have Anxiety? It Just Might Save Your Life Right Now
I am a psychologist with an expertise in the treatment of anxiety, but what do I tell my patients during a national epidemic when I am nervous, too? I am constantly worrying about my physician brother who is on the front lines every day and my elderly parents who are, fortunately right now, stuck at home, as well as my friends working in the epicenter of the outbreak. So, what is this thing called anxiety? Anxiety is worry that is sometimes excessive or disproportionate to the situation and can potentially impair a person’s normal level of functioning and he/she may suffer with fear. However, at other times, anxiety can be a healthy and motivating emotion to a very real situation. Perhaps, the very expected and natural anxiety and fear of this pandemic might just be helpful.
Often in the case of anxiety, I would work with a patient on what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy calls “catastrophizing.” Catastrophizing is a thought distortion or a thinking error in which we automatically imagine the worst-case scenario. Our bodies and our minds react and behave as if the worst is already happening to us. Ever had a panic attack? You might, if you are catastrophizing. I would also work with a patient on “what if” thinking. When we tend to “what if” think, we also find ourselves often imagining the worst-case scenario, and already planning for something negative that may not even happen. In the middle of a pandemic, I know catastrophizing and what if thinking are hard to avoid, and while it is normally deleterious, during this pandemic, such thinking might actually be constructive.
So what is the treatment for anxiety during this pandemic, other than focus on self-care, sleep, exercise, nutrition, etc. Well, maybe being anxious about COVID-19 might just save your life. What do I mean by that? Well, it is simple. If you are anxious that you or your loved ones may contract the virus, you will take extra precautions. Anxiety is not always a bad thing. Ever heard of the primal instinct of the fight, flight or freeze response? It is our body’s instinctive response to danger and it was a cloak of protection for our ancestors. It has saved our lives many times throughout history. In other words, anxiety can be motivating and fueling, it can cause you to commit or to omit certain behaviors. For example, you can commit to follow CDC guidelines, stay at home, when possible, wash your hands more often, and socially distance yourself when around others, while omitting behaviors outside of CDC guidelines. Furthermore, you will stay informed and live your life more cautiously. You might wear a mask in public places and avoid touching your face because of your constant awareness, thanks to your anxious motivation. You might also wipe down your groceries and packages. All of these practices, fueled by anxiety, in this case, are healthy reactions to a real threat. They are motivating.
To this extent, it is beneficial to allow the anxiety you feel to fuel the motivation to manage this dynamic pandemic as adaptively as possible. The anxious person will be better equipped to manage than the non-anxious person who continues to live his/her life nonchalantly as if we are not experiencing the worst pandemic the majority of us have ever seen and hopefully will never see again. So, the next time you are feeling anxious, take some deep breaths and realize that your anxiety might just save your life.
Please note: Though these are difficult times, if you find yourself in a considerable amount of distress and feel as though you are struggling, please reach out for professional help.
Dr. Geeta Arora, Psy.D., is a Florida licensed psychologist.