Ask Dr. Paul: Healthy ways to deal with fears over COVID-19

Do you have a behavioral-health question related to the coronavirus? Email askdrpaul@everettclinic.com.

Our daily lives have been drastically disrupted because of the coronavirus. The routines, stress-relievers and human interactions we’ve become accustomed to have given way to social distancing and staying at home whenever possible.

On top of acclimating to this new way of life, there is widespread uncertainty and concern over our health and well-being. This makes it easy for feelings of stress, worry and anxiety to overcome us. In this week’s column, I decided to address common COVID-19 fears and the best ways to cope.

Q: I find myself consumed with worry about COVID-19. I worry about myself, my family and my friends. What can I do to cope with my anxiety?

A: I wish we all had a magic wand that would alleviate our fears and help us focus. But in these times, it’s completely natural to feel apprehensive about the health of our families, our team and our patients. We can’t control our thoughts — worries are going to pop into our minds, no matter what we’re doing or where we are.

Try not to go down the rabbit hole of negative, catastrophic thinking. One negative thought can quickly lead into another. Before you know it, you’re at the bottom of a dark hole.

There is “useful” worry and “non-useful” worry. Useful anxiety motivates us take charge of what’s in our control. It helps us collect helpful information, make plans and take action. But worries that are not useful are often about future events that are outside of our control. They don’t help us prepare or take action.

When you have a worry pop into your mind, notice whether it’s a useful or a non-useful thought. If it’s something that’s outside of your control, remind yourself that there is nothing you can do about it. That helps you keep your perspective.

It’s beneficial to share your worries with a loved one. Simply list your worries without getting into each one — just verbalize your fears. Or you can write your list of worries on a sheet of paper. Expressing your anxieties, either to someone else or on paper, bring these scary thoughts out of the dark closet of your mind into the light of day. Everything looks different in the light.

Q: My 8-year-old daughter is really stressed. She keeps waking up in the middle of the night. Any suggestions?

A: Insomnia, either trouble falling asleep, waking up earlier than usual, or waking up after falling asleep and then having trouble falling back asleep, is a common experience during times of stress. It’s completely normal.

It’s helpful to give children something to do. Make a music playlist of calming songs that she can turn on in the middle of the night, to soothe her spirit, and to distract her. Go into her room, rub her back for a few minutes and turn on the playlist. If she’s a reader, let her read a little. It’s best to avoid letting her climb into your bed. That can become a difficult habit to overcome.

A trick that I use for myself is to lie there quietly and, as I breathe out, I count each out-breath until I get to 10 breaths. Then I start over again. When I lose count, I start back at one. Of course, my mind will wander, but I keep going back to counting my breaths. It’s much easier than counting sheep! Focusing on our breath helps us relax and fall back asleep.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog. Do you have a behavioral-health question related to COVID-19? Sending your questions to askdrpaul@everettclinic.com.

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