Dealing with COVID-19 anxiety: CWRU psychology professor Jane Timmons-Mitchell offers tips for coping

photo of Jane Timmons-Mitchell

The nation was already clinically anxious enough. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 19% of American adults experience at least one anxiety disorder over any 12-month period.

And that was before the coronavirus outbreak.

“In a matter of just a few weeks, most Americans had their lives completely turned upside down,” said Jane Timmons-Mitchell, an associate clinical professor of psychology at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and a senior research associate at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences

“Millions of people across the country are quarantined,” she said. “Students are studying, parents are working from home and the economy has slowed to a crawl—all this while people have valid and genuine concerns about coronavirus and its spread across the country.”

These seismic changes represent an effort to limit the spread of the virus so it doesn’t overwhelm the health-care system. While it’s too soon to measure the coronavirus impact on anxiety, Timmons-Mitchell said it’s safe to assume that anxiety abounds.

“Uncertainty and fear are major triggers for anxiety,” she said.

Making matters worse, Timmons-Mitchell said, anxiety suppresses the immune system, so “anything we can do to not be anxious is helpful.”

The COVID-19 crisis is not a normal challenge. Timmons-Mitchell offers some pointed advice on ways to cope:

  • Thinking less: At this university, we’re paid to think. We “Think Beyond the Possible.” So, it’s counterintuitive to think less. But part of staying ahead of anxiety is getting out of ourselves.
  • Trusting leadership at both our university community and especially in Ohio—a state that’s turned out to be a national model for this crisis. Find a good source of information—not necessarily news—perhaps the Centers for Disease Control. Gov. Mike DeWine’s daily briefings are fantastic. If you’re feeling some anxiety, there are good sources of helpful information available
  • Structuring time: Without focusing on the fear, which can be paralyzing, a good alternative is to provide structure. Establish a routine, even if it’s just getting up, taking a shower and getting through some tasks. The structure helps us to put one foot in front of the other.
  • Remaining connected: Call, email or video-chat with friends and family members, especially if you are feeling isolated—or you know that they might be. You may find that they have more time to talk than they usually do because so many people are home from school and work.
  • Staying physically active: Getting outside and walking is healthy. Some people are using apps to keep track of their exercise. In Japan, treatment for depression is increased work and gardening. I’ve been gardening more—it’s a great way to practice mindfulness.
  • Planning a vacation, in detail: Planning your next adventure can help take your mind off of things, and some research shows that the act of planning a vacation engenders hope. The idea is that there is a time when we will be able to do this fun stuff. When you spend time planning a vacation, you’re practicing mindfulness. It’s like you’re making a memory ahead of time.
  • Finding ways to help others: It’s something prescribed for those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. There are places in Ohio where churches have organized food drives. Food banks are accepting direct donations. Philanthropy is needed. If you can’t actually do anything to get out there, you can always write a check. Even $10 helps.

Timmons-Mitchell suggested that those who feel the anxiety is interfering with daily functioning should ask for help—from either a trusted confidant or a doctor. “Many mental health professionals are available by telehealth,” she said. “Certification rules have been relaxed to include telephone as well as video chat sessions.”

And anyone having thoughts about self-harm should seek help immediately, she added, suggesting the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).