How to manage the anxiety of a pandemic

Anxious woman experiencing burnout

You don’t have to move far to find a conversation on COVID-19, recently declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). But behind the jokes about celebrities self-isolating or toilet roll shortages, there is much underlying anxiety in people and uncertainty looms over the coming weeks and months.

Anxiety is to be expected[1]. After all, it’s a novel coronavirus that’s never been known or researched. There is a resulting uncertainty about its impact, how it’s transmitted, and the fact there is currently no vaccine. The unknowns lead straight to anxiety .

Information is limited too. As scientists continue to research the virus and the implications for human health, the challenge is to find good quality, non-sensational, trustworthy sources (such as the WHO).  Anxiety peaks when people don’t know what’s best to do or who to turn to. If we’re not careful, it can become a vicious cycle of worry and uncertainty.

The unknowns lead straight to anxiety.

Evolutionary roots​ of anxiety

Humans evolved from jawless and cartilaginous fish whose only way to survive was to freeze and hope predators couldn’t see them. As evolution continued, through bony fish and amphibians, we developed the capacity to fight or flee, giving us more ways to respond to danger. Then as our nervous systems became more sophisticated, we added in hormonal responses such as adrenaline.

Eventually humans developed a vagal system, where the development of our smart vagus nerve in particular helps us to regulate our fight or flight response when we draw on our social engagement skills. This gave us an additional way to respond to a threat – the ability to reach out to other members of our support group for help and care.​


ways to respond to anxiety

Recovering from a workout

If we can’t get rid of the unknowns and we can’t remove the uncertainty, what can we do?

Surprisingly, in my work as sports psychologist in Superleague Netball, working with anxiety and fear is part of my kitbag. People are often surprised to learn that athletes are frequently beset with anxiety, sometimes extreme, as they deal with the uncertainty and unknowns about their health, performance and whether they’ll be selected for competing (and therefore earn any money to support themselves and their family).

At the end of the day, we are all human. People respond to anxiety in the same way, whether they’re athletes or you and I facing the current COVID-19 crisis. Here are some ways we work with anxiety:

Lean in and be curious about your feelings and thoughts

The key principle is not to fight anxiety or push it away or try to suppress it. Our brain might kick into the fight or flight response, and in extremis, go into the most primitive response, a frozen rigid shut down. Instead, try and stay open and curious about the feelings and emotions you have right now:

Lean in and explore your anxiety, like a curious scientist, without having to run from it.
Set yourself a limit on the time and situation you spend being caught in your thoughts and feelings. Try making a commitment such as:

“I am going to go to place _____ where I may feel anxious, and I will stay there for _____ amount of time.”[2]

And limit the time to 10 minutes, 5 minutes or even 1 minute.

The aim is to make space for the uncomfortable feeling and let them come and go, watch them, and see how they change and begin and end.

Be kind to yourself

Secondly, there is no perfect response to anxiety. It is ok to feel anxious and have thoughts and actions that spiral around. There are no rules you need to follow. Imperfect is fine. So be kind to yourself

  • Simply notice your thoughts, and name them if you can. Just doing that helps you to put things in perspective.
  • Remember that it’s human to feel anxious at this time – give yourself some slack and say to yourself what you might say to a friend in the same situation.

Connect to others

The most evolved response for us to take in response to the uncertainty and ambiguity of the current pandemic, is to engage our smart vagus nerve. We can engage our smart vagus nerve by calling out to our communities to look for support and help. Our most sophisticated response to anxiety is ask for care, support and protection from those people around us.

  • Keep connected – whether virtually or through a social distance.
  • Make sure people have daily contact with one or two people so they can get support, reassure themselves, and have people who care about how they are feeling.

Stay present and do one thing you care about

And finally, we can choose the next action we take. We can put our attention on doing what matters. Anxiety does not need to stop us from doing the big and little things that are important.

  • Bringing ourselves back into the present moment: sitting at our desk, on the way to work, or during the working day. Notice what’s going on around you, however trivial – a colleague’s smile, people talking, a car going by, the sounds of the wind, and realise that we are part of a bigger world than in our heads.
  • And despite the noise going on in our heads, and the desire to run away fast, to do one small things that we care about – enquire how someone is, laugh with another person, get outside and walk, help a neighbour. We can direct our actions, even when there is thundering in our mind.

You are human. Being uncertain and living with ambiguity is hard. Try to remain open to that ambiguity, notice and name your thoughts and all the feelings that come with it, be kind to yourself, lean in and stay present. For this moment is all that we know for sure. Choose to so one small thing right now – and take one step at a time towards what is important each day.





Coffee break