Managing anxiety in an anxious climate

6 easy-to-tackle steps for handling stress-induced emotions

Newspaper headlines about COVID-19


This is the fifth in a series of stories about how Johns Hopkins employees can use the myStrength wellness portal and app to enhance their emotional well-being. In this installment, clinician Ayzha Corbett, manager of JHU's mySupport program, addresses anxiety in the time of a pandemic.

Our body's ordinary response to stress is anxiety. Feelings of dread or uneasiness about the future are typical. Have you ever tossed and turned the night before a big test or speech, a job interview, moving to a new place? This is normal. Most people feel fearful and nervous before these events. Ordinary anxiety is a feeling that ebbs and flows, but it does not typically hinder everyday life.

But living in the time of COVID-19 is raising our shared level of anxiety. So much of what is being reported in the news, on social media, and in our daily conversations is uncertain and unfamiliar. Our concerns are countless, and we are looking for explanations and a sense of control. Many of our feelings are suitable and reasonable. But it's important to manage them.

Like stress, everyone experiences anxiety—and its behavioral, cognitive, mental, and physical impacts—differently. The response can show up as butterflies in your stomach or as a racing heart. Some people may feel out of control, with a general feeling of fear and worry. Some may experience hasty breathing, insomnia, fatigue, restlessness, edginess, or difficulty concentrating.

As we attempt to wrap our heads around the changes we see daily with COVID-19, we balance logic with emotion while trying to get ahead of what will happen next. Sometimes, we catastrophize, focusing on the worst-case scenario. This naturally leads to heightened anxiety. No one is denying that COVID-19 is a cause for concern, but worst-case thinking may do more harm than good. To feel less anxious, be grateful for what you have right now, in the moment. Take a look at the evidence. Notice when you may be worrying about "what-ifs."

It is important to recognize the triggers for feelings of anxiety. If possible, track your mood in a journal. Note the time of day, the emotions and physical symptoms you were experiencing, and the activity in which you were engaged before feeling anxious. Describe the evidence for your anxiety and, where possible, be proactive about alleviating it. Here are six steps that you can take now:

1. Work some fun, health, and connection into your daily routine, and take your mind off your anxiety as much as you can. Limit the amount of news you consume.

2. Manage your thoughts and practice self-talk: Choosing caring thoughts instead of upsetting ones is within your power. Your thoughts are essential to your health, and replacing unsupportive patterns can make a real impact over time. Practice helpful thinking that will boost your spirit and give you good energy. Some examples are: "I am doing the best I can" and "This is bringing out a lot of good in people."

3. Allow. Accept. Express. No feeling is off the table. Emotions are a part of the human condition, even though some are difficult to accept. Expressing a feeling you are having, in any way you can, may help relieve some anxiety.

4. Relaxation: If you've never tried meditating or doing relaxation exercises, this is the perfect time. Even five minutes of quiet time or a guided meditation can change things in your body and mind.

5. Connect with others. Whatever you are thinking and feeling, don't do it alone. Others may be having a similar experience. Don't let social distancing keep you away from your support system. Find fun, new, and creative ways to connect.

6. Use grounding exercises to pause and find your way forward. Live in the moment, and keep yourself rooted in reality by using grounding exercises that can calm you down quickly by using your five senses. When anxious, focus on something you can see, feel, hear, smell, and taste.

Among the many resources available to support the emotional health of Johns Hopkins employees and their family members is a free app called myStrength, which can be downloaded from the Apple App Store or Google Play. To create an account, use your Johns Hopkins email address and the access code JHU or JHHS, depending on your affiliation. Its modules are self-paced and can be done whenever, and wherever, you choose.

One especially useful feature of the app is that it lets you track your well-being with a regular emotional health "check-in." In addition, an entire module dedicated to COVID-19 can be found under Life Topics; it offers strategies, tips, and information on coping with and processing common feelings and experiences during the pandemic. Another module, Managing Overwhelming Thoughts about COVID-19, provides tips on defusing and reframing negative thoughts and anxiety.

Each person may react to trying conditions such as a quarantine a bit differently, so watch yourself and your loved ones for signs of distress. Don't hesitate to reach out for professional support, whether you believe it to be temporary or long-term. Johns Hopkins' mySupport program is available to employees and their family members 24/7 by calling 443-997-7000.

Now, more than ever, taking care of yourself is important.