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Heaven and Hell: Unsettling Anxious Reactions to COVID-19

No doubt many of us are riding the "Hot Mess Express" these days. But self-absorption and a lack of compassion are never healthy for dealing with uncertain times.

“You’re wrong! I’ve been reading your articles for a long time and I have proof that you’re therapeutic advice is flawed. ‘The world is an inherently safe place and most people possess goodwill.’ Really? Explain this—why has our world collapsed and why are people dying?”

Rather than respond personally to this disgruntled reader, I decided to make lemonade. Call it bitter, or sweet, your call.

An undeniable COVID-19 casualty (besides the devastation caused by death, grieving families, joblessness, loss of security, freedom, etc.) is the cost to the anxious mind.

One could argue that the majority of us dwell in anxiety these days — after all, the environment is ripe for worst-case scenarios. But there’s an unsavory side to 24/7 worrying — a subset of anxious personalities who possess rigid, concrete, rageful personality traits. They refuse to “take in” the good and choose to fixate on the catastrophic.

It's a thing in the therapy room (or on-screen). This article is for those dealing with difficult people as much as for people who actually want to change.

The following are concerns I have as a psychotherapist:

Self-absorption. Too much time spent ruminating about the personal costs of COVID-19 and too little time spent considering the costs to others. There are levels to this. It rhymes with tone-deaf.

For example: “I can’t stand these endless Zoom meetings. Why does my supervisor insist on over-scheduling our team?”

What about those who lost their jobs? Or those who don’t have the option to work from home?


“I don't mind COVID-19. I’m relieved for the shelter-in-place orders because I don’t have to interact with people!” (Note the focus on "I.").

What about the spouse prohibited from visiting her dying husband in the hospital who waits helplessly as he draws his last breath alone? Bottom line: Nobody should verbalize any benefits of not having to spend time around the general public during a pandemic. If that’s how you feel, that’s how you feel, but consider keeping it inside your head.

Self-righteousness. Viewing the pandemic as “proof” you were correct all along to be afraid of the world. Behaviorally, this looks like doomsday predictions, fixating on headlines, and pointing out others’ frivolous attitudes and failure to comply with safety precautions. And calling therapists incompetent.

Where’s the perspective? According to the CDC, the 1918 H1N1 flu virus (“Spanish Flu”) caused the deadliest pandemic of the 20th century. Hopefully we'll never measure up (or down) to those statistics, but most of us were not alive in the early 1900s.

Avoidance. The shelter-in-place orders and restricted public access means you may not have to report to a workplace. Or socialize. Here's the thing: The only way to combat social anxiety is through engagement (even if this means a computer or mobile screen, for now).

Too much time in your head means ruminations fester, and all the while, you're losing the chance to test-proof your distressing thoughts as caused by yourself, and not by the people around you.

Lacking compassion. There is no "I" in team. Embracing the “we’re all in this together” collective mindset is found through EQ (emotional intelligence).

The following suggestions can help you find a balance between avoidance and action during COVID-19:

1. Check-in with your thoughts. It can be tempting to over-focus on feelings because they’re hard to ignore (hello racing heartbeat, tightening in the chest, and dizziness). Know the principles of CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy):

Thoughts —> Feelings —> Behaviors

Mindfulness can help you you pay attention to what you pay attention to, and reframe negative, unhealthy, catastrophic thoughts.

2. Don’t fight your feelings. It can seem like you're one stop away from riding the Hot Mess Express. But there's a difference between allowing yourself to explore what's coming up, and giving in to emotional distress.

For example, just because you feel helpless about the future doesn’t mean you don’t have options or agency. What proof exists to refute your accomplishments and reinforce your resilience?

Feelings aren’t facts. When an uncomfortable emotion arises, resist the urge to distract yourself or go numb. Then ask, "What am I gaining by not dealing with this?' If stuck, repeat step 1 and check in with your thoughts. This article can help.

3. Watch out for self-medication, and other checking-out behaviors that allow you to avoid your stressors. “It’s 5:00 somewhere,” or stewing in anger may have helped you cope with pre-COVID-19 reality. Nowadays, that former annoying PTA member or your husband’s habit of inviting the neighbors over for an impromptu BBQ doesn’t have the same impact as living with COVID-19 reality. Check-out this article for emotional regulation and stress management tips.

4. Assess how much time you spend in the future. It’s a tall order to not worry about what’s coming or to resist "controlling" the present. But other than following government guidelines and safety measures, we have little control over what the next round of information will bring. We can always choose to be cautiously optimistic.

5. Do differently. As Mr. Rogers’ Mom says, "look for the helpers." It’s easy to focus on headlines, hatred, and catastrophe. A better utilization of your time and energy is to intentionally seek out the good news. And there are a lot of humans doing wonderful things.

6. Ask: “Is this attitude/situation/interaction/ helping me feel how I want to feel?”

7. Check yourself for contempt. Now more than ever, we need healthy immune systems. Nothing robs our mental and physical reserves quite like revenge fantasies. Or as Confucius said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

8. Know, action beats anxiety every single time.

If you vacillate between hope and horror, accept where you are now. But beware of the extremes. We can possess hope in this extreme time of uncertainty without fearing the world is going to hell in a handbasket. And kindness and compassion don't cost a thing.

Copyright 2020 Linda Esposito, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author.