How can we handle our Covid-19 anxiety?

Updated: Apr 1



As human beings, our we are geared toward survival. The Coronavirus itself, and all the uncertainty surrounding it, is identified as a threat by our alarm system. As a result, our fight-flight system is activated to get us ready to flee or fight for our lives. In the modern day, this ultimately leads to our experience of anxiety: health anxiety, financial anxiety, future anxiety...


We experience anxiety in our thoughts, feelings, bodies, and behaviours. Here are some simple techniques we can use to manage this anxiety and give our alarm system feedback that we are okay.


Anxious Thoughts

Typically, these manifest in racing, repetitive thoughts that we get stuck on, excessive worry, and expecting or fearing the worst possible outcome. Anxious thoughts are like a lens that paints our reality - and often these thoughts feel automatic.


For example, you may be worried about you or your loved ones catching Covid-19 and experience excessive worry about interactions with others or even going to work. While some caution is important, too much anxious thinking can severely impact our lives.


So what can we do? One effective technique is called thought testing. This has three main elements to it:



1. Identity the Origin of your anxious thought. We all have slightly different anxieties - if we experience strong emotion in response to something, this is often driven by our past experiences. For example, has health been an issue for you or someone close to you in the past? These emotional memories can exacerbate our current fears.


2. Examine evidence for your anxious thought? What evidence is there that this thought is true or likely?


3. Examine evidence against your anxious thought? What speaks against this thought being true or likely to happen?


4. Find a balanced view. Exploring reliable scientific research and understanding more about Covid-19 can help us to feel like we are back in control and let's our brains calm down.


For some guidance on thought testing, CLICK HERE for our handy THOUGHT TESTING worksheet.


Anxious Feelings

Anxiety is not necessarily felt by itself. Other feelings may also be floating around: guilt, shame, sadness, anger... How do we know that we are experiencing anxiety? And how do we differentiate it from similar emotional states, such as excitement or anticipation just before a bungee jump?


Our feelings are our alarm system to alert us that something is wrong - if we ignore or suppress them, they will try harder to catch our attention until we can no longer turn away. So anxiety at an intensity level 2/10 quickly turns into a 9/10 without us even realizing. We practice emotion observation to engage with our feelings and let them know they have been heard.


1. Observe the sensations in your body. Where can you feel the anxiety and what does it feel like?

2. What is your anxiety telling you to do? Why is it warning you? How does it want you to protect yourself?

3. How does it change while you are observing it?


This process allows your emotional and rational part of the brain to connect and helps you to regulate your feelings. Try the process of emotion observation by CLICKING HERE.


Anxious Bodies

Increased heart rate, dilated pupils, rapid breathing, sweating, trembling... these are some of the things that happen to our bodies when our fight-flight system is activated. When we are dealing with on-going anxiety our bodies get over-stimulated with stress hormones, which can lead to other health issues: headaches, digestive issues, sleeplessness, muscle tension, cardiovascular issues...


The great news is that we can de-activate our fight-flight system and activate our rest-and-recovery system through controlled breathing. CLICK HERE to try this 4-4-8 Breathing Technique to achieve calm.



Anxious Behaviours

We all occasionally engage in behaviours to "take the edge off". These can be helpful or unhelpful. Sometimes this involves a glass of wine, snapping at a colleague or withdrawing from friends. Unhelpful behaviours make us feel worse over time and increase our anxiety. Helpful behaviours reflect self-care and nurture toward ourselves and others.


When we have values that are important to us, but do not act in line with these, we often find ourselves engaging in unhelpful behaviours that decrease our wellbeing. An example of this is the panic buying of toilet paper triggered by Covid-19. People get caught up in the moment, perceive threats around them, and grasp for any form of control to manage this anxiety. In this case, toilet paper alleviated anxiety. However, many people felt silly afterward or realized that the anxiety came back. So relief was only temporary and the action was rather unhelpful to make us feel better.



A good way to make it easier for us to choose better, helpful actions is planning. We can create an Action Plan by

1. Identify a value that would have been important to us in a stressful situation. For example, perhaps we would rather have had connection with others than snatching up toilet paper.


2. Identify three actions aligning with this value. For example, we could have helped buy toilet paper for elderly neighbours or acquaintances. We still feel like we are doing something useful and maintaining control, but it is more aligned with our value of connection. Or we could make a poster for our office on reminding people to use hand sanitizer. Again, something that relates to connection and can help us feel safer, rather than creating more anxiety.


To dive a bit deeper and make your own action plan, CLICK HERE.


There are plenty of things we can do to brave our anxiety during Covid-19 and continue to feel in control during a time of uncertainty. Stay tuned for other articles around supporting others during Covid-19 and handling uncertainty in uncertain times.


If you have any questions or want to discuss your own struggles with Covid-19 anxiety, get in touch with me on e.terrighena@mind-balance.org.

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Dr Esslin Terrighena - Psychologist in Hong Kong

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