Panic and Purpose in the Pandemic

Finding it hard to breathe even though you have zero symptoms of COVID-19? You’re so not alone. Our "Panic in the Streets" columnist shares his advice for dealing with anxiety in the time of corona.

by Eddie McNamara Health Writer

Of course you’re anxious. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. If you aren’t anxious in the midst of the novel coronavirus outbreak, you should check for a pulse. Even the Dalai Lama cancelled all public appearances. And over the last few days, quite a few stressed-out friends and readers have reached out to me in a panicked state. Now, I don’t know a damn thing about viruses and pandemics, but I know panic and anxiety and that’s where I can help.

Struggling with spiraling worry and worst-case-scenario thinking is totally normal considering the circumstances. We’re living in uncertain times. It’s understandable to be more afraid of a virus we don't know (the novel coronavirus) than one we’re familiar with (the flu). But that doesn’t actually mean you’re in more danger. This is a large-scale crisis, and as a former police officer, I can tell you that under crisis situations, people tend to rally together and support one another. You’re not alone, even if you’re social distancing. Here are a few tips that might make things a little less tense as we deal with this together.

Continue being gentle and kind. Make no mistake, we are all in this thing together, and we all have a role to play. Luckily, a sense of purpose in helping other people is one of the most fulfilling ways to deal with anxiety and feelings of doom and negativity. You and I are responsible for not making this pandemic worse by being careless and selfish. Unless you’re a first responder or essential employee, just stay home. Do not frolic around like it’s business as usual.

That doesn’t mean you can’t help: I’m not out on the front lines of this thing, but I’m on the phone lines with people I care about. I’m talking, texting, emailing, and Skyping with friends, family, and acquaintances because a support system makes people feel safer. Extend your reach by checking in with neighbors, especially older people who can’t leave because of health or mobility issues. Buy a record from a touring band who can’t tour because of COVID-19, or a T-shirt from the local bar or restaurant that had to shut down, or a book by an indie author whose book tour was cancelled. You can support people from a safe distance in a lot of different ways. And don’t forget, it’s hard to be anxious when you’re occupied by meaningful work (or a good book).

Stop watching the news. I understand that you want to be up to date with things, but please consider your mental health before turning on the TV news or watching videos online. Limit your intake of the 24/7 stream—it’s mostly coronavirus scare tactics and Trump gossip, because the best way to get clicks and ratings is to create a panic and make sure viewers are plugged in, worried, watching, and clicking on wild speculation masquerading as “news.” Even government press conferences have presented conflicting information and outright lies.

By no means am I asking you to keep your head in the sand and pretend like we’re not in a serious situation. I’m just asking you to get your information from serious sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization or a legitimate news source like NPR, The New York Times, and health websites like this one. Consider the source. If my Brooklyn brother, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, is talking, listen up.

Exercise your right to mute. Your friends (and family) on social media are probably decent, well-intentioned, nice people, but unless they’re epidemiologists or virologists, they don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to COVID-19. Just ignore their dopey shares about how rubbing crystals on your head or drinking lemon juice cures the virus. Put the meme lords and soap boxers on mute. Block any conspiracy theorists from your life. If necessary, take a social media break. If you’re just scrolling to pass the time, why not seek out #cutepuppies or #chonkycats instead?

Do your best and don’t worry. Stress, which we’re all under right now, is a totally normal reaction, and in some cases can actually be beneficial in a crisis situation. Worry is a whole other thing; it’s allowing your mind to be in constant state of anxiety over actual or potential problems. That’s not helpful in any way. You’re probably going to get some intrusive thoughts about all the things that could potentially go wrong. And you’re probably going to overestimate the likelihood of something disastrous happening. Just know that it’s a worry and not reality. When your mind starts racing, make sure to note to yourself, “This is worry, not reality.” By accepting your worry for what it is instead of fighting against it and making it worse, you’ll likely feel it slip away and take those thoughts less seriously the next time they arise.

Hold on to your friends (just not literally). Check in with your people. I happen to write an anxiety column, so my friends are pretty comfortable talking about this kind of stuff with me. If you were my friend and you contacted me, I’d ask you to stop everything you’re doing and take a pause. Then I'd have you take a deep breath in through your nose for four seconds and then out through your mouth for four seconds, relaxing your jaw. Relax the muscles in your face, your neck, your shoulders, then keep breathing and relaxing all the way down to your feet. After you’ve taken a minute to chill, we’d address your worst-case-scenario concerns. In this calmer state, I’d ask, “Are those fears logical? How likely are they to happen? Really?” Then I’d ask you to challenge your thoughts. When you do so in a state where you’re not all keyed up, you’re likely to separate the legitimate concerns from the out-of-control worry brought on by anxiety.

Don’t spend the day in bed. If you’re working from home, keep your time as structured as you would at your workplace. (If you’re not working, treat it like a weekend snow day.) Put on some pants. Get up and stretch your legs every hour. Set aside 30 minutes for physical activity. If you have exercise equipment, great. Use it! If you don’t, there are a gazillion yoga, Pilates, and calisthenic videos on YouTube or most streaming services that you can follow along to. Use this time to check out some guided mindfulness meditations, interesting Ted talks, learn a new skill, or start that novel you’ve always wanted to write but never had the time to. I’m practically a shut-in who has been “practicing social distancing” and working from home since 2002, so I know what I’m talking about when it comes to being stuck in the house. Make sure you feel like you’ve accomplished something every day regardless of how (seemingly) small it may be.
Here’s a sample schedule:

  • 8 a.m.: Wakeup/coffee/morning routine

  • 9 a.m.: Work

  • 12 p.m.: Lunch

  • 12:30 p.m.: Watch Ted Talk

  • 1 p.m.: Work

  • 3 p.m.: Movement/exercise

  • 3:30 p.m.: Reading/learning

  • 4 p.m.: Work

  • 5 p.m.: Dinner

  • 6 p.m.: Yoga and meditation

  • 7 p.m.: Shower and whatever you want until bedtime

Get someone on your side. We talked about being helpful to others already, but who helps the helper? If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try to reach out and not touch someone by picking up the phone and catching up with a hilarious friend or relative like we did in the olden days. Steer the conversation clear of COVID-19. Share some laughs and remember-whens. I was a ball of stress yesterday afternoon and my 4-year-old niece FaceTimed me. I completely forgot what was even stressing me out after she showed me her books and her homework and we made funny faces at each other. Make sure to keep yourself entertained and allow yourself plenty of silliness. Watch some mindless comedy and make an attempt to find the most ridiculous videos on Youtube.

Whatever you do, don’t let shyness stop you from reaching out to your therapist or mental health provider. If you’re not in therapy but think now might be a great time to start, try one of the app-based therapy services like Talkspace or check Psychology Today for local docs who do phone or virtual sessions.

The moral of this story? The world is legit bananas now, so it’s actually healthy (and not at all weird or weak) to feel anxious. Feeling edgy during a global crisis—one where local supermarket shelves have been cleared of soap and toilet paper—is evolutionarily stamped into your brain. It’s part of being human. Anxiety helps us prepare and stay safe. But when worries get out of control and inhibit your ability to function, you need to be brave and get help. If not for yourself, do it to better support your friends and family. Besides, someone’s got to forage for toilet paper.

Eddie McNamara
Meet Our Writer
Eddie McNamara

Eddie McNamara is a 9/11 first-responder and former cop turned vegetarian chef and author. He's been living with panic disorder and PTSD for 17 years, and he'll be sharing his experiences, thoughts, and seriously hard-won advice every month. Check out all his columns for "Panic in the Streets."