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Coronavirus Anxiety

Expert advice for those with chronic illnesses: Be informed, but also protect your emotional health.

woman stands at window

With worldwide attention focused on COVID-19, patients who live with chronic illness are facing an additional threat – an unhealthy level of anxiety.

Many people who have immune system diseases, respiratory conditions and other illnesses already have a regular routine of hand washing and avoiding sick people. Now those preventive steps must be ramped up. Due to the everyday challenges of their diseases, people with chronic conditions are already at increased risk of anxiety and depression, research has found.

The threat of coronavirus – now a global pandemic – adds another burden to the hearts and minds of patients, said Carrie Mead, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) and life coach. As we all focus on maintaining physical health, it’s important to remember that stress and anxiety also are unhealthy, she said. So what should patients do?

Try to assess whether the pandemic – and all its related stresses – is impacting your emotional wellness, Mead recommends. If the answer is yes, don’t ignore those feelings.

“If the news, social media, or your friends are causing you considerable stress, take a break,” she said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control lists the elderly and those with chronic illnesses as among the most likely to experience high levels of stress due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In addition to taking a break from the news, the agency recommends these steps:

  • Take care of your body. Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
  • Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.

Set boundaries with those who are wearing you out and make good choices about how you spend your time, Mead recommended.

“Engage in activities that are restorative rather than draining,” she said.

Common recommendations for passing the time at home include exercising, listening to music – many artists and cultural institutions are streaming live performances -  and, of course, watching streaming shows and movies. NPR recommended this list of go-to shows, music and activities.

Regarding high stress and anxiety, the CDC also has advice specific to health care staff and responders, as well as the parents of kids and teens. Many young people will feel rattled because regular routines, school, sports and time with friends have been interrupted. 

It’s a good time to work on stress reduction techniques and coping strategies for anxiety, Mead said. Don’t focus on what you can’t control. Instead, concentrate on what you can do, she said.

“Daily mindfulness routines are paramount for calming the brain,” she said. “When you have the mental flexibility to stay calm, you are in a much better position, physically and emotionally, to navigate the ups and down that are common when you are living with a chronic illness.”  

Dan Harris, a U.S. television journalist and author of a book about his own anxiety, has created a mindfulness app and a page of resources related to the coronavirus crisis. The author of “Ten Percent Happier,” Harris urges people to try meditation and mindfulness as a means of coping in difficult times.

If you gain a few skills now, you can employ them long after the current health crisis is over, Mead said. For excessive stress and anxiety, she recommends seeking help from a behavioral health specialist, Mead said. Many are available via video chat.