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Walks, meditation, fear lists: How to cope with coronavirus anxiety

Alexis Rickmers is among many people suffering from anxiety amid the coronavirus. She says daily walks, like this one around Chandler Pond & Gallagher Park, help.
Alexis Rickmers is among many people suffering from anxiety amid the coronavirus. She says daily walks, like this one around Chandler Pond & Gallagher Park, help.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The coronavirus pandemic is sweeping the globe. The economy is tanking. And most people are cloistered at home, feeling either lonely or overcrowded.

It’s no wonder anxiety — already America’s most common mental illness — is fast becoming a universal state of mind. While anxiety is a normal reaction to these unprecedented circumstances, the fear and spiraling worries caused by all the unknowns can be especially serious for people who already are struggling with mental illness.

“On a mass level, we are in an anxiety phase right now,” said Dr. Edward Silberman, a psychiatrist at Tufts Medical Center. “We’re facing the potential for all kinds of losses, from relatively small-scale to catastrophic — and none of us knows where we’re going to fall in that spectrum.”

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Anxiety often manifests in repetitive what-if thoughts, he said, now a normal state for many people worrying: What if I get sick? What if my parent dies? What if I lose my job or my home?

Therapists suggest a range of tips: keeping a routine schedule, exercising, eating a healthy diet, meditating, taking walks, avoiding news and information overload, and maintaining connections with family and friends through technology. And many therapists are now offering remote appointments through video or telephone conferences, so people managing mental illness can continue receiving services.

Many who have long struggled with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses have a repertoire of tools and techniques that they’ve found helps them get through each day.

For Brighton resident Alexis Rickmers, 24, the coronavirus has been both terrifying and somewhat validating. She suffers from panic disorder, anxiety, and hypochondria (excessive worries about one’s health) — and the pandemic has shown that her fears weren’t totally irrational.

“My hypochondria has won a little bit because I take my temperature four times a day,” Rickmers said. “It’s just been a very intense battle in my brain about what’s real and what’s not.”

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Alexis Rickmers says taking her temperature every few hours and daily walks, like this one around Chandler Pond & Gallagher Park, help her manage anxiety around coronavirus.
Alexis Rickmers says taking her temperature every few hours and daily walks, like this one around Chandler Pond & Gallagher Park, help her manage anxiety around coronavirus. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

As an extrovert, she has struggled with working from home as a paralegal amid the crisis. Taking walks around her neighborhood helps, she said, but she misses meeting with friends. She fears spreading the virus to her partner’s grandparents who live with them.

Sometimes after reading news stories about people with the virus, Rickmers said, she feels an impending sense of doom, her heart racing. She sits on the floor and takes deep breaths, often using the Headspace app to meditate. She also finds it useful to read about the virus’s trajectory in other countries, which helps her understand what to expect.

Although most people are holed up at home, it’s crucial to maintain social connections with friends and family through technology, experts say.

Working from home now, Andrew Maker, 36, said he misses his colleagues at the Canadian consulate in Boston, where he works as a trade commissioner. He has made a point to chat informally and share dog pictures on Slack with colleagues as he works from his home in Yarmouth Port. His wife and 7-year-old son are also around, which has been both fun and challenging.

He combats his anxiety by starting each day with a 30-minute run, a perk of not having a two-hour train commute anymore.

“The morning workouts aren’t about how many calories I burn. It’s really about getting that chemical structure and endorphins for the day,” Maker said. And he tries to notice the little things, like the leaves starting to bud.

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One of the biggest emotional challenges involving the coronavirus is that no one knows how long the crisis will last.

Larry Berkowitz, director of Riverside Trauma Center in Needham, recommended thinking about just one day, or one week, at a time.

“If we can put things in chunks, they’re manageable for us usually,” Berkowitz said. He also suggested that people working from home try to create daily or weekly schedules with their families and negotiate any expectations or challenges, like needing space away from each other, before tensions flare up.

People are finding creative ways to cope. Religious leaders, gyms, yoga studios, and spiritual groups are offering virtual meetings, classes, and services.

Others are crafting.

Blair Usedom, 27, an administrator for a consulting firm in Cambridge, finds knitting a relaxing distraction from the gloom. It requires a little thought, but not too much, and brings the satisfaction of creating something new.

She has had anxiety since eighth grade, so she’s learned the importance of activities that can pause the brain’s cycle of worries. She loves reading fiction, meditating using the app Insight Timer, and watching shows like “Brooklyn 99,” “Bob’s Burgers,” and “Schitt’s Creek.”

“Once you’re distracted for long enough, thoughts aren’t as scary,” Usedom said. “The longer you don’t mull on them, they lose power a little bit.”

When her fears won’t stop cycling, she finds it helpful to discuss them with her partner or write them down on a list and read them. She finds that gives her some distance to notice whether they’re actually unlikely to occur.

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Usedom was already a germophobe, but now her fear has reached new levels. She makes her partner pick up all the items at the grocery store. At the pharmacy, she switches aisles whenever someone else walks into hers. But she recognizes she has to limit her paranoia, so she avoids articles about how long the coronavirus lives on surfaces. She doesn’t want to fear touching everything in her home.

“In my head, for some reason, once things are in my apartment, I feel more OK about touching them — which doesn’t makes sense, I’m aware, but it’s the only thing I can do to not completely stop functioning,” Usedom said.

Christine Magill, 23, a college program coordinator who lives in Waltham, said she has struggled with panicking about the coronavirus and social isolation while working from home. She said she prefers to get her news from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

“Having the news on every second of every day just feeds into the mania,” Magill said. “It’s really helpful to just have the facts rather than all the crazy news headlines and weird Facebook articles.”

One of the most important ways that people can mitigate their emotional distress is to take concrete steps toward improving their situations, not just focusing on their feelings.

Christine Tebaldi, a nurse practitioner who helps lead McLean Hospital’s psychiatric emergency services, said it’s crucial for people to be their own advocates and inform themselves through official sources. If they’re facing joblessness, they should seek out government agencies that offer assistance. Taking action will make people feel better.

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“People who are feeling nervous, worried, fearful, agitated, or angry, bored, or frustrated — that doesn’t necessarily mean they are at an emergency state,” Tebaldi said. “These are typical responses that often resolve with these types of strategies to address them, or as the situation itself improves.”

People experiencing a crisis can call the Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, or the Crisis Textline: Text TALK to 741741.


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.