DISCLAIMER:  These resources are written by Dr Mieke Garrett, but are not original ideas. Where possible, key contributors / authors of these ideas have been cited. Please also note that the contents contained in these documents are for information only. They are not intended to be used to treat any mental illness. The clinical diagnosis and treatment of mental illness requires direct consultation with a properly qualified health professional. If you are having difficulties, please consult your GP or a mental health professional in the first instance. These resources are not intended to be used in isolation or as a substitute for obtaining individual psychological assistance and must not be relied on for this. They must also not be used for medical advice. If you have any medical conditions or concerns, please see your medical doctor. The author does not accept responsibility for difficulties arising out of failure to seek formal medical or psychological advice or for misinterpretation or misuse of the information. Whilst every reasonable effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of this information, the author cannot guarantee that the information is free of error or omission. The author shall accept no liability for any act or omission occurring in reliance on the information on this website and for any consequences of any  such act or omission.

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Coping with coronavirus stress & anxiety: Covid-19 in New Zealand

Dealing with anxiety related to coronavirus

The worldwide Coronavirus / Covid-19 pandemic is also a ‘perfect’ breeding ground for anxiety. We are collectively faced with a very real threat to our personal health and safety, our economy, and our healthcare systems. Some of the things related to this are out of our control, and everything feels very uncertain, changing daily. That’s pretty much the exact recipe for anxiety. So, here are some tips for dealing with this:

· Know that feeling stressed and anxious about this, to a degree, is a normal response. We are all feeling this way and we are all in this together. You are most certainly not alone. To some degree, anxiety is helpful and motivating. We need a level of concern to maintain a safe distance from others, practice regular handwashing, etc. Anxiety becomes a problem when it starts to impair our functioning or take up all our time and energy, and/or causes considerable distress, and doesn’t add any extra benefit to the outcome from what we are already doing.

· Some things that make anxiety worse than it needs to be are:

o Engaging in unhelpful thinking styles such as focusing on the worst-case scenarios, and selectively paying attention to information that confirms or endorses these, such as focusing on the deaths rather than on the (far greater) numbers of recovery.

o Going down rabbit holes searching for more and more information on the topic in an effort to feel better, but actually just ending up feeling worse as it highlights more and more things to feel worried about.

o Non-acceptance of your anxiety – trying to block it out, avoid it, resist it, not think about it – this all, ironically, tends to lead to you thinking about it more. Things are hard to tolerate, yes, but trying to resist that actually just increases our suffering in addition to the pain we are already experiencing.

· Some things that can help with this are:

o Practicing over and over acceptance of the fact that you are going to feel some anxiety and uncertainty, and this is okay. This is your body’s natural response to this situation. You don’t need to get rid of it, but you also don’t need to make it worse.

o Reading up about mindfulness skills can really help with this, as can self-compassion and being kind to yourself. One way to attend to your thoughts mindfully is to say “I just had the thought that …. (insert worry)” – this helps your brain identify it as a thought rather than a fact, which already begins to create some distance from it. Self-compassion involves saying to yourself what you might say to a friend you cared about. You can practice validating yourself – “It makes sense I’m feeling this way, this is a hard time”.

o Differentiating a worry from a problem – you can read more about this process on my “resources” tab – there is a “managing worry” blog. Basically, when you find yourself worrying, ask yourself is this a problem I can practically solve? That is, is it something that is in the here and now, and within my control? If it is, you should be able to work through a problem-solving process (there is an example in my blog), and come out with a plan after one or two attempts at this. On the other hand, if it’s a worry, you will be able to tell by the fact that it is something that is in the future, that hasn’t happened yet, and that may or may not actually happen. It’s generally a worst-case outcome, and largely outside of your control. In this case, it’s not useful to try and problem solve it. It’s not solvable, and a new worry will just keep cropping up in its place. Maybe you can make a sensible one-off plan for coping in response to a worst-case scenario, but don’t keep going down the trap of endless “what ifs”. Focus on what you can do and what you can control.

o What you could do with worries instead, is set a “worry time”. Don’t do this too late at night, when you won’t be able to sleep, but sometime later in the day, for maybe half an hour. During that time you can worry as much as you like. Make sure you plan something distracting and enjoyable for yourself afterwards. During the day in the lead up to this time, whenever a worry enters your mind, you can say to yourself “I’m not going to think about that right now, I’ll come back to it in my worry time”. When you get to your worry time, you may not even feel the need to use it. And if you do use it, it’s no different to what you’ve ordinarily been doing all day anyway – the only difference is now it’s confined to half an hour only.

o An alternative strategy if you find it hard to delay worrying, is to make sure you take breaks from your worry. This can really work wonders. Just take a half hour / hour long break / mini vacation from your worry. Do something enjoyable, relaxing, or just get out of the house for a walk and a change of scenery.

· The number one message the Mental Health Foundation in NZ are wanting to get out to people is that “we will get through this if we work together”. They state that connecting with people who make you feel safe and loved is the most important thing you can do. Obviously, this needs to occur in creative ways with social distancing – be safe about it. There are various counselling helplines you can call at any time for free too, if you are feeling alone or stuck – You can text 1737 for the mental health foundation at any time. The mental health foundation website lists tips for connecting with others such as creating virtual bookclubs, online gaming, sharing your favourite Karakia or Waiata, and more.

· The World Health Organisation recommends you draw on skills you have used in the past to get through difficult situations. While the current situation is unprecedented, many of the same skills apply. The key is to keep working on your resilience and importantly, be as flexible and adaptable to the situation as possible.

· Limit media input, by only checking particular trusted sources, and/or only checking at certain times of the day (limit the amount). Make sure you balance your news feeds with positive, helpful, uplifting information as well. I have been saving hopeful and useful information and images to my stories highlights on Instagram so that I can easily keep coming back to them. Maybe you could do this, or create a photo album, Pinterest board, etc. – Whatever works for you.

· Some people find it helpful to find a purpose or meaning in what’s going on. Viktor Frankl’s book “Mans Search for Meaning” refers to this. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps and talked about the importance finding meaning had in surviving this. For you, in the current pandemic, finding meaning or purpose may look like

o Helping others, looking out for the vulnerable (e.g. Consider donating to Kids Can if you have the means).

o Focusing on down time, and family

o Using it as a chance to learn about and improve your resilience

o Thinking of it as a small “climate reset” and chance for the world to change some of its old ingrained ways

· Take it one day at a time, even one hour or minute at a time if you need to, and keep putting one foot in front of another. How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.

· The Centre for Clinical Interventions website (see my “resources” tab) has a lot of good information, resources and modules for coping with various mental health difficulties.

· Healthcare workers particularly may find it difficult to “get away” from coronavirus information overload, being faced with it at work all day long. It’s obviously important here to find a way to switch off or distract a little for a while once you get home, if possible. You might need to make it clear to friends and family that you need their support in switching off for a while, and you may need help to create a little time to do something relaxing, and away from media.

Coping with social isolation

· Your physical health is an important part of keeping well mentally too. Try and focus on adequate nutrition, sleep, exercise, and staying away from coping with alcohol and drugs.

· Keep a routine and structure to your day (even loosely).

· Reach out to others in creative ways – virtual book clubs, online gaming, emailing friends and family, talking on the phone, Skype etc.

· Talk about how you’re feeling with trusted and supportive friends and family. Or call one of our free helplines in NZ (see “resources” tab).

· Get outside (at a safe distance, where allowed) and get some sunshine and fresh air each day.

· Remember that during this time you may well be feeling more vulnerable and emotional. Conflicts can be more likely, particularly when living in close proximity with family more often than normal. It might help to delay certain discussions until the morning or another time, when you feel you have more resilience to be able to have the discussions productively.

· Use this as an opportunity if possible to rest and relax, or get things done from your to-do list.

Financial stress

A lot of businesses are struggling and people are facing redundancies, and resulting personal financial stress. This is undoubtedly incredibly stressful. Some things to perhaps consider if you haven’t already:

· Some real problem solving is needed here. Write out all your options. Sometimes just writing them out can help. There’s some information with a problem solving template (and example) on the Centre for Clinical Interventions website here: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Consumer%20Modules/What%20Me%20Worry/What%20Me%20Worry%20-%2007%20-%20Problem-Solving.pdf

· Discuss your options with people who are helpful. Family, friends, online business communities, trusted management / HR at work, etc. Employment NZ are also a great resource if you feel you are being treated unfairly or having other problems with your job.

· Don’t beat yourself up about feeling disloyal by making contingency plans and thinking about alternatives. Sometimes this is necessary.

· While jobs are declining in a lot of areas, they are also increasing rapidly in other novel areas: Amazon are hiring a lot more employees; supermarkets are crying out for help; healthcare workers are desperately needed to name some.

· The NZ Government continues to roll out financial assistance to individuals and businesses where possible. Keep updated on these developments. Remember many of us are all in the same boat, and there is an understanding of the struggles many people will be facing in these unprecedented circumstances.

· The Robinson Duo share some helpful tips for businesses on their Instagram Page.

· Don’t be afraid to ask people for ideas and help.


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​© 2020 by Dr Mieke Garrett, Clincial Psychologist, New Plymouth