Supporting Those with Anxiety About COVID-19

If you sincerely want to be helpful to others in your life who are anxious about the corona virus, read on.  This information may change the way you respond to your family, friends, co-workers, and clients.

Common Traps

Sometimes it’s more important to NOT say certain things, than it is to say just the right things.  Be aware that the following messages predictably make those who are anxious actually feel worse.

“Everything will be ok.”  You probably mean well, but this message can have the opposite impact, especially when heard by those who are already anxious.  There are several explanations for this response – psychological reactivity, boomerang effect, and cognitive dissonance.  Regardless of why this happens, the truth is that you don’t know if everything will be ok for that person, so don’t say it aloud.        

Appealing to Rational Thought.  A common response when trying to assuage fear is to offer unsolicited logic or rational thought.  In this scenario, you may have an impulse to cite statistics that indicate the current number of cases and death rates, along side other health risks such as influenza, heart disease, etc.  But doing so at the wrong moment may unintentionally result in a disconnect.  Even though reviewing statistics may be a good way for you to gain perspective, it may not have the same effect for others.  After all, we all see things differently based upon events in our lives.  For example, some people have recently had that experience of being the 1 in 10,000 who had a life-threatening reaction to a “safe” medicine, getting the diagnosis of a rare auto-immune disorder, or a being a victim of a random act of violence towards themselves or a family member.  Keep in mind that they may not necessarily want to disclose those parts of their lives and explain their reasons for being concerned.  So, hold back that advice about seeing things rationally, unless you are asked.

It’s all (or mostly) in your head.”  Anxiety affects all systems of the human body.  To name a few, it impacts our cardio-vascular (increased heart rate and blood pressure), pulmonary (changes to breathing patterns) musculoskeletal (increased muscle tension), gastro-intestinal (stomach upset and malabsorption), endocrine (adrenal activity and elevated cortisol levels) and of course, our neurological systems (insomnia, increased startle response, irritability).  Those physical reactions are all very real, have been documented in scientific journals for decades, and are undisputed by professionals who are knowledgeable about anxiety.  To explicitly tell others, or even imply, that their distress is “in their head” is not only invalidating, it is simply false.  Don’t send any version of that message.

What to Try Instead

You probably already know these things, but below is a quick reminder about ways to be supportive to each other.

Offer to be “with” the person.  Social support is perhaps the most well known way to help others.  Reach out.  Tell others that you want to stay in touch.  Call, text, or check in on social media – even if just to say “hi.”  You don’t have to physically be there (and in this case, the they may not want that!).  The important thing is that they don’t feel alone.

Offer to support.  What do the people in your life need?  The only way to really know is to ask.  Even if they don’t need anything, it may mean a lot to ask them this question. 

Normalize feelings of fear.  Feeling fear and the physical reactions which accompany it (i.e., anxiety) is a normal human experience.  Encouraging others to suppress these responses is usually futile.  In fact, it can be like throwing gas on a fire.  Instead, a more compassionate response is to support each other by acknowledging and normalizing how we feel.  You can simply tell your friend something like, “Yeah, I’m scared too.  It makes sense to be concerned at this point.”  Basically, be honest about your genuine shared feelings, sending the message to them that it’s ok to express their feelings too.  There’s no need to compare and contrast.   And, please, don’t over do it, lie about your feelings, or patronize.  

Let others make their own decisions.  Should you wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer?  Should you travel overseas next week?   Should you go to the work convention in Las Vegas or New York City?  Should you stock up on medicines and food?  Should you cancel the family reunion?  All great questions – and adults are allowed to formulate their own answers based upon their understanding of the risks.  Suppress your desire to tell others what to do.  It’s their life.  In fact, supporting others’ autonomy and helping them build confidence in their own decision making abilities can be helpful in the long run.

By Jim Carter, Ph.D. March, 2020

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