by Dr. Lindsay Israel
COVID-19 Stress

January 21, 2020 is a day that will change the face and the psyche of our country forever. 

The first case of COVID-19 in the United States was confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control.

As a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Success TMS, part of my mission is always to determine if a patient’s reported symptoms are impacting day-to-day functioning.

With Coronavirus related stress and anxiety growing, it’s clearly beginning to affect our day-to-day.

What can you do about your newly-found panic-stricken self?

This article will help!

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Is everyone becoming a little OCD? Possibly.

Wearing masks, excessive hand-washing, social distancing and more are all new precautions we’ve introduced to our lives.

These adjustments can turn into OCD-like behavior. We don’t want that.

OCD symptoms I screen for include:

  • Intrusive disturbing thoughts
  • persistent fear of becoming ill
  • compulsive behaviors, such as repeated checking behaviors or excessive hand washing to temporarily relieve the distress of the thoughts.
    • Self-isolation leading to feelings of loneliness  
    • Avoidance behavior leading to inability to work or socialize
    • Feeling of being out of control.

Does any of this sound familiar now…?

All of these presentations describe how we as a nation are thinking and behaving now. 

We are constantly checking our phones for new information about the virus.  We are repeatedly washing our hands. We are consumed with thoughts related to COVID-19.  We are isolating and avoiding contact with anyone non-essential in our lives.  We are feeling very lonely. 

So, do we all now have OCD or Anxiety or Depression?

Will COVID-19 affect the way our brain works?

The truth is we don't know if COVID-19 directly affects the brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier or are the neurological symptoms a secondary effect of the infection. There are reports of neurological symptons.

Will our subconscious adjust to COVID-19?  

Yes. We are humans, and therefore capable of adapting to the environment around us.  

We learn and grow and develop strategies to solve problems. Our primitive primary instinct ingrained within our subconscious drive is to survive.

Worry is an appropriate emotion that keeps us alive.  If we didn’t worry, we would not look both ways before crossing the street. If we didn’t worry, we would not even attempt to follow the CDC recommendations of social distancing and necessary hygiene precautions. 

Appropriate worry or concern is what drives us to take action to help ourselves.  We are making a choice.  We do have some control. 

When worry turns into panic is when our choice is taken away from us and transforms into symptoms that are out of our control.  

Here are 8 ways to cope with the stress of COVID-19

  1. Distract yourself

You want to make the best of your time?

If you engage in some positive distracting activities during this crisis, then the flow of the day will move like a steady stream rather than a slow drip.

  • Time might seem to go by slowly and you only measure your day by the time between newscasts.
  • Do not just stay glued to the tv related to the pandemic.
  • Look up a new recipe and try to cook it. Get creative with what you have in the pantry.
  • Watch an entertaining show you haven’t had the time to get into.
  • Read. Write. Paint.
  1. Keep a schedule 

It is easy to lose track of time and stay in bed longer than usual, especially if you are not actually showing up for work because of a lockdown. 

Get up anyway. Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Get out of pajamas, shower, and put on your day clothes. 

The brain likes routine, but if you move into a routine that is unhealthy, the brain will react and might get stuck in that low stimulus environment. 

  1. Get outside

Cabin fever can set in, and you cannot take a temperature to gage this type of fever.

It typically shows itself by irritability.

Go for a walk in your neighborhood if weather permits. This is safe to do. The human brain needs stimulation and needs to see the sunlight in order to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm of the sleep-awake cycle. 

This also is a healthy distraction. When you walk, take notice of some things that you might have not noticed before you had to take a pause in your usual day.  See the leaves on the trees!

  1. Stay in touch

Coronavirus is a biological virus, not a computer virus. Our phones are working.

Reach out to people; hear their voice.  Use video messaging, like Skype or FaceTime. Technological advances can allow us to maintain human contact even if we cannot physically be with our friends or family.

Remind yourself you are not alone.

  1. Exercise

This can be done if you go for a nice brisk walk outside or doing yoga in your family room. 

There are tons of online programs for at-home exercise. Now is a time as good as any to find an app or website you like. This will keep you not only physically health by preventing staying sedentary, it will keep you mentally healthy. 

Exercise helps you sleep and helps to keep up your energy reserves.

  1. Laugh

There are dozens and dozens of memes floating around out there that take good advantage of a healthy defense mechanism, humor.

Finding the funny is perfectly normal and encouraged.

It is not minimizing the severity of this pandemic as you still take the necessary precautions, but rather, it is giving your brain a break from the heaviness of the worry.  

  1. Limit checking your phone

If you allow constant notifications and updates related to COVID-19, you will never get a break.

As part of your schedule you will keep, only allow yourself a certain amount of time to check news sites and social media or even to discuss the current situation with others.

Don’t worry, you will stay current on vital information; you won’t miss anything.

Setting this type of boundary with yourself has been proven to help minimize stress levels.

  1. Enjoy the time with your immediate family

If you have school-aged children like I do, and now find yourself an un-volunteered stay-at-home parent homeschooling your child.

You might actually be finding yourself wishing at times you are home alone.

Give yourself permission for “me time” but also look at this as glass half-full. You have an opportunity to make some valuable memories with your children in a time of dire straits.

Play board games, card games, charades, sing songs on Alexa together, look at old photos together.

Make lemonade together, literally and figuratively.   

Final Thoughts

As a result of this pandemic, it is possible that our prior social norms might change indefinitely. Shaking hands or hugging as a form of greeting might not remain, though I hope not. 

As a psychiatrist, I feel that meeting face to face with my patients makes a huge difference in developing trust and rapport. Telepsychiatry might become the standard way of practicing psychiatry, though I hope not.

I am glad that we are adaptable creatures and can shift to behaviors that ensure our safety. I am also glad that we are empathetic creatures that feel the importance of protecting others.

The truth is that we as a human race have been through troubling, difficult and distressing times all throughout history. 

The one thing we know to consistently be true is that our drive to live, our ability to learn and our creative spirit will allow us not only to survive this virus, but to be even wiser and stronger for having gone through it.  That is not a consolation prize, that is a real result of adversity.    

About the Author

Dr. Lindsay Israel is a board-certified psychiatrist. Her goal is to help patients feel empowered, because their symptoms can leave them feeling powerless. She specializes in Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) therapy for the treatment of various psychiatric disorders. TMS is FDA-approved for depression and is a non-invasive, non-medication alternative to traditional treatments. Dr. Israel’s specialized clinic, Success TMS, focuses on this advanced therapy which allows patients to achieve remission from depression and return back to their best lives.

I worked with Covid-19 survivors. The virus does not just target the respiratory functions. Almost a Survivors continue to deal with side effects from the virus and Foggy brain is one of the most common issues. So your article states it will not effect the brain which is untrue.

I tested possitive for coronavirus a month ago and ever since I have suffered with anxiety and panic attacks when trying to leave my house

I work in long term health care facilities in the United States. For about 6 weeks I was unable to help our patients because I couldn't even get out of bed. I was so worried about bringing the virus to work, somebody bringing the virus to work and spreading the virus and killing our residents. All in-factual information as our facility has remained Covid free. Our state leaders still do not support any cure or care that may be possible because they do not like the fact that it works for President Trump. They are very resentful people. Time to quit playing politics and think about the healthcare workers that want to quit. We never signed up for this crazy front line work.

There are MANY more symptoms and effects on the body than just respiratory. This article might’ve been written earlier. Covid patients suffer from a myriad of other symptoms and issues than just respiratory.

This Coronavirus has one silver lining: I have a whole new appreciation for anxiety and panic attacks. As if the coronavirus pandemic itself wasn't enough, late night rioting & looting added another stressor for me, worrying about my hubby, an "essential worker" as he's in the food-service industry/delivers cookies to very desolate supermarket loading docks during those wee hours when the looters are active, but the straw that broke the camel's back was work pressure: the boss put out an email to the team as business had fallen-off 40% intensifying the need for us to work even harder on collections. Her bulleted list of priorities instantly overwhelmed me as they were all "priority!" It was ALL I COULD DO just to stay seated in my chair!! I wanted to RUN out the door screaming, but had the presence of mind to know that doing so would have flipped-out my little girl and my husband, so I remained seated, but internally, I was running out the door screaming! That was apparently a panic attack, and now I know that suffering one isn't anything that can be rationalized-away with reason or logic. It's the fight or flight response to your mind's perception of a stressor, or stressors. I don't know what running out the door screaming would have done (I'd still have to do all the collection tasks she bulleted in her email, and running out the door screaming wouldn't magically make the pandemic resolve or cause rioting/looting to cease), it only would have taken me away (temporarily) from the straw that broke the camel's back, the boss's overwhelming email.
I hated needing to see my doctor, but felt I had too many stressors, and really thought I should tell her about the panic I experienced (I only say I hated needing to see my doctor because I'm not one to unload my woes, I've always been able to manage them, but she patiently waited for me to explain -and then Rx'ed Xanax and referred me for psychotherapy, two cool tools). I'm a big chicken about meds, so I split 0.5mg Xanax into 4 and barely used 1 whole's taken me 5 months to finish that initial bottle of 30 pills. That said, the psychotherapist also listened patiently during her assessment call, and I felt SO validated when she reflected and said "Well, no wonder you're stressed: you've got a lot to feel stressed about!" By the time we met for 1st psychotherapy treatment, I'd been terminated from my job but ALAS, the termination INSTANTLY reduced my stress (I'd never lost a job in my 30 year career, so I'm not tripped-up over this loss). The Psychologist's approach, in retrospect, seems like a no-brainer, but at the time, categorizing stressors into "those you can't do anything about" -vs- "those you can do something about" was genius: I couldn't do anything about the pandemic (except wear a mask and social-distance), and I couldn't do anything about the rioting/looting except tell my hubby to be vigilant of neighborhood happenings before he pulls around to rear delivery docks and keep his truck locked...), but her advice to take positive action on the category of stressors which I COULD control was empowering. So although I'm still jobless, I'm Xanax free and I've learned to keep moving forward, taking positive action on things I can control and that helps me feel better.

Thank you for this article. I am struggling with anxiety and trouble focusing and concentrating. I'm going to try the steps in this article.

That's great Anna. Taking steps in the right direction usually leads to self-improvement and a happier outlook on life.