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We Know You're Stressed. Here Are Some Tips For Managing Anxiety During An Outbreak

Luke Runyon
Horsetooth Reservoir west of Fort Collins.

With all the news about the spread of the novel coronavirus in our state and around the world, it's hard sometimes not to get a little bit anxious. KUNC's Colorado Edition spoke with Vincent Atchity, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, about how to maintain mental health during this stressful time.

Erin O'Toole: There is a virus spreading around the world. What level of anxiety is considered healthy or normal at a time like this?

Vincent Atchity: I think that almost any level of anxiety is considered normal at a time like this. These are unusual times. So no one should be surprised if they're feeling anxious.

How do you know if your anxiety is too high?

If your anxiety is so extreme that it's interfering with your ability to do anything else or think about anything else, then that is not a healthy level of anxiety.

What tips do you have for people to manage their own anxiety?

One of the key things about anxiety is that it is a product of our overactive brains. And our brains are these tremendous organs with this great capacity. We can reach all the way out to the ends of the universe and imagine black holes and the Big Bang and go unimaginably far with them. And anxiety is really a product of taking in more than we can be accountable for. And one of the key drivers of our anxiety in these current conditions is that we know so much all day long with breaking news about latest developments and how communities and countries are reacting to the pandemic.

Zero in on the moment, the things that are within our reach and the obligations that we have.

And so it's easy to fall into a habit given all of our different streams of information of just consuming all day long. And what we're doing is we're loading our brains up with more stuff than it knows what to do with. And it's stuff that's beyond our control. That drives anxiety.  

One of the key things we can do for anxiety is turn that stream of information down a little bit and refocus our brains on the things that we do have control over. We can zero in on the moment, the things that are within our reach and the obligations that we have. We can cut ourselves off a little bit from that steady stream of anxiety-making information.

One of the things that we are all being urged to do right now is social distancing — just maintaining a physical distance from others. For some people, this can feel more like being isolated. So how can we maintain this physical separation without feeling alone?

I think it's sort of unfortunate that we're calling it social distancing. If anything, we should take this as an opportunity to practice social togetherness, and use all of our different communications media that are so handily at our disposal. With all of this great new technology that we've developed, we can try to be there for each other in all kinds of creative ways: making telephone calls and having FaceTime visits and scheduling online remote meetings. So there's a real opportunity here for us to connect rather than disconnect from each other.

And we should be especially concerned for those who are most likely to experience isolation. Everybody should do that heroic work of reaching out to people as deliberately as we possibly can from one day to the next.

What about kids? Children have a sense that something is going on. How can adults explain this situation to kids in a healthy way?

Kids have very capacious brains and can absorb all kinds of things. The best thing an adult can do is stick to simple facts and maintain a tone of confidence and calm and explain to kids that part of life is enduring through challenging moments. And this is one of them. And that we're going to get through this.

On the other hand, kids are super resilient, and do well when their families are doing well. The opportunity to spend more time with the family may be welcomed by a lot of kids. And if we can take this time to enjoy each other's company and get them outside and keep them focused on their schoolwork, this will be part of their world and they'll just absorb it and carry on.

You mentioned reaching out to those who may be feeling lonely and isolated for various reasons. What is the best way to help people?

It's the times of hardships when the human spirit really shows its great strength.

Communication is one of the most moving supports that we can provide for each other. And then we can also entertain each other, by suggesting things that are entertaining. For instance, somebody found a mix on Spotify called "Coronavirus Awesome Mix 2020." Other folks have been sharing lists of favorite plague-related films.

The other thing to do is spend some time reflecting on hard things that humans have been through in different moments in history.

We've survived a great depression and we've been through wars. It's the times of hardships when the human spirit really shows its great strength. Every little thing you do for somebody else, to minister to somebody else's needs, is a really great triumph of the human spirit. So just be creative about how you can be helpful.

This conversation is from KUNC's Colorado Edition from March 18. You can find the full show here.

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
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