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Managing Anxiety Amidst Our Current Health Crisis
May 11th, 2020

Written by Moe Gelbart, PhD, Director, The Thelma McMillen Recovery Center 

If the news of recent weeks has made you feel more anxious and fearful than normal, you are not alone. News regarding COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, can take an emotional and psychological toll on all of us. Along with the stress and anxiety, you may also experience anger, worry, insomnia and a desire to isolate.

With schools closed, people staying and working from home, incomes threatened and health concerns elevated, it is natural to worry how COVID-19 is affecting your community and if you are at risk.

While COVID-19 must be taken seriously, there are ways to manage the anxieties and fears surrounding it. For those in the South Bay and surrounding areas, the first thing to remember is most people recover well from COVID-19, just as with a cold or flu, without requiring medical care. Our concerns are valid, but this is also an opportunity to make smart choices, come together as a community, learn to cope with uncertainty and remind ourselves of what is really important. With the outbreak reaching new levels each day, we are experiencing something none of us have experienced in our lifetimes.

I won’t spend much time reviewing what we already know about hand washing, the signs/symptoms to be concerned about, social distancing, and everything else our incredibly great medical community has recommended to us. I will take a moment to express the community’s abundance of gratitude to our physicians, nurses, healthcare workers and all professionals doing everything in their power to keep us safe. Take pride in knowing the great impact of your work.

I’d like to focus now on the emotional toll this is taking on us, and more importantly, specific suggestions to deal, cope with and reduce those concerns. This is undoubtedly a difficult time for you and your family. Here are some suggestions for managing any anxiety you may be feeling during this time:

  1. Validate feelings. People’s fears and anxieties are real and need to be accepted by others as well as by themselves. Understanding and empathy are essential, so try not to tell someone they should not feel a certain way. Acceptance of someone’s feelings allows you to then build a bridge to rationally explore alternatives. When a family member says “I’m scared,” telling them you understand how they feel will allow the two of you to explore other ways to look at something.
  2. Avoid catastrophizing. When anxious, we tend to project into the future, creating stressful and fearful scenarios, many of which will never occur. I encourage people to avoid “what if” scenarios and replace them with “what is.” Trying to stay in the present gives us more control over what is going on, and a sense of control leads to reduced anxiety.
  3. Learn to Reframe. How we see and perceive things determines how we feel. We have the ability to adjust our perception. Black/white, all or nothing thinking usually results in anxiety and fear, while learning to dilute and recognize the gray areas of life helps calm things down. Instead of “this will never be ok,” we can think “things are very bad right now, but there are steps we can take to improve things, and we will eventually come through this.”
  4. Control the things you can. Let go of what you have no control over. As I stated, anxiety and fear are directly related to not feeling in control. Trying to control things you have no control over will lead to heightened stress and anxiety. Assessing what you have control of (like handwashing, not touching your face, avoiding crowds and wearing a face covering in public, etc.) and exercising that control will allow you to feel you are doing whatever you are capable of to stay safe.
  5. Emphasize Gratitude. Continually take inventory of what is good in your life, and allow yourself to experience and express gratitude. Doing so reduces stress and anxiety. Even in the most difficult of times, we have much to be grateful for.

For many of the challenges that lie ahead, I believe many of these thoughts will be helpful. As you experience difficult times, use this period to do things you normally couldn’t do or didn’t have time for. As we hunker down, we can do art and craft projects, read, play board games, do puzzles, play cards, take walks in our neighborhoods and participate in other safe activities.

I have been the Director of the Thelma McMillen Recovery Center for 30 years. Our program utilizes the AA philosophy, which has great slogans to live your life by in general, but which are particularly useful at this time and have nothing to do with drugs or alcohol.

  • Easy Does It
  • One Day at a Time
  • Keep It Simple
  • Control the Things You Can, and Let Go of the Things You Don’t Have Control of.
  • This Too Shall Pass

We will get through this. We will be stronger, more compassionate and more understanding as a result. We will take care of ourselves, our families and our community.

Moe Gelbart, PhD, is the director of the Thelma McMillen Recovery Center. He practices at 3333 Skypark Drive, Suite 200, in Torrance.