Coping with the “What If’s” of COVID-19
By Matt Berman, MA, LPC
Assistant Director Exceptional Wellness Counseling
Raise your hand if you asked yourself a “what if” question today related to COVID-19.
Raise your hand if you asked at least 5 “what if” questions today.
Raise your hand if you’ve asked so many “what if” questions today that you can’t even keep track.
Chances are, you’ve asked many. And how could you not?! We’ve never had to deal with something like the Coronavirus before. As a society, we have dealt with crises before, but none like this. Uncertainty and anxiety lead to “what if’s.” If you’ve been asking “what if,” then great! Your mind is operating the way it is intended to keep you safe.
Worry and anxiety are survival skills. They keep us aware of danger and threats. This is a kind of danger that threatens our physical health, our loved ones’ physical health, our sense of safety, our access to do normal everyday things such as trips to the mall, going to the movies, taking our kids to the playground, visiting friends, and about a thousand other things that I know I’m missing right now.
The following are a set of tools that have been helpful for many clients I’ve worked with. Keep in mind, not all of these will work for you, but the goal is to have options to pull from to see what works best for you.
Identify what you can control during COVID-19.
“What if’s” are your mind’s way of trying to prepare you for something terrible. Being prepared for challenging situations can be helpful. “What if I run low on food? What if my loved ones get sick?” These thoughts can motivate you to stock up on the right things for quarantine. These thoughts might make it a priority to call your family more often this week so you can tell them you love them and hope they are staying safe.
However, your “what if’s” can get to a point where they no longer motivate you to take action. It can become PARALYZING. It can take you away from giving yourself that needed mental break to be able to get through the day. Some anxiety is helpful. Too much becomes counterintuitive and no longer helps us. When you are trying to get to sleep and it’s 2am and you are running through all your biggest fears in your head, you are no longer preparing or keeping yourself safe. You are hurting your mental health, your immune system, and your ability to take care of yourself and the others who may depend on you.
If you find yourself unable to escape the “what if’s,” write them down. Then take a look and ask yourself “Which ones can I act on right now?” Chances are, you simply cannot act on many of them. Tell yourself, “I can’t control these outcomes or situations right now. What I can do now is take care of myself.” Maybe there are a couple worries on the list that you can act on. Pick a day and time to act on these if you realistically can.
Talk with a loved one about your anxiety (though, please, not at 1:00AM).
We need human connection. This doesn’t necessarily need to be with others that we are living with, but if those are the people we feel safest with and trust the most, then great. However, if you feel that you might get better feedback or feel more listened to by other people in your social circle, or if you live alone, reach out to them. Likely, they will be struggling, too, and might want to talk about their fears and stress, as well. You might feel better by talking through the things you are scared about.
By talking about your fears and listening to your trusted loved one’s fears, you will feel less alone and will help the other person feel more connected, as well. I’ve been part of a group chat with some friends, and we talk almost daily. Sometimes, we utilize the group chat to talk about our worries and help each other process all of the uncertainty. Other times, when we’re sick of talking about the Coronavirus, we talk about lighter topics, like Netflix shows, recipes, or funny things that our kids are doing.
Practice mindfulness (yeah, I know you’re sick of that word).
Everyone’s favorite buzz word!
Yes, we all know about mindfulness. We hear about it on tv, blogs, self help books, and probably a few friends or family members who rave about it’s benefits (or from therapists who don’t shut up about it..not talking about myself. lol).
Mindfulness really isn’t a difficult concept, but it can feel difficult to put into practice at first. Being mindful is simply being aware. Rather than just sitting, we are aware of the feeling of tension in our back, or the feeling of the comfy pajama pants we are wearing during our zoom call. We are more aware of the sound of birds outside or the taste of the french vanilla creamer in our coffee.
With “what if’s,” we are no longer aware of our present situation. We are living in the future and preparing for the worst case scenario. We are rattling through a thousand different scenarios that we don’t have control over at the given moment. Mindfulness brings us back to the present and grounds us. It reminds us that, right now, you can just focus on the moment. And that moment might be drinking a cup of tea or coffee, reading a good book, smelling a scented candle, or taking a warm shower.
Set aside a “worry period.”
Wait, you’re telling me TO worry?!
Let’s face it, trying to convince yourself to not worry is nearly impossible. Telling yourself “don’t worry” is the equivalent to “don’t think about a big pink elephant.” So, I’m giving you permission to worry. Worry as intensely as you can about all the worst case scenarios. But here’s the stipulation. I want you to set aside a time of 30 minutes a day to do this, and no more
You’re probably thinking, “How in the world does this help me?” Sometimes we need to allow ourselves to worry. Rather than pushing away our anxiety, we’re going to allow ourselves to experience it. By setting aside a limited time to do this, we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, but we set a limit. By knowing that you have set aside a time to worry, it will be easier to redirect your thoughts when you find yourself worrying at other times during the day. If you are saying “30 minutes sounds like a lot, I don’t want to intentionally worry for that long.” I would bet that you’re probably worrying a lot more than 30 minutes throughout the course of the day, anyway. However, you can always start with 5 minutes and add more if needed. When you find yourself worrying at other times, gently remind yourself, “I’m noticing my worrying thoughts creeping in again. I can worry later today, but right now, I need to do something else.” With practice, you might be surprised at how much more control you have over your thoughts.
Take action through distraction.
When the worrying becomes too much and you’re struggling to “shut it off” or quiet your mind, try something distracting. Sometimes, something passive like watching tv might not be enough. I’ve frequently heard people say “I try to stay distracted by watching tv, but my worries keep entering my mind.” It’s been shown that doing something with your hands might be a better way to distract yourself. It is harder for your mind to focus on what you are doing with your hands then what you are worrying about. Or at least harder than if you are simply watching tv. Try cooking, crochet, writing, putting together a puzzle, or gardening. Time will fly by almost as fast as it did when you blew through Tiger King in two sittings.
If you can’t lessen how much your “what if’s” are affecting you, therapy can be another option. Our therapists are trained to help you tackle the “what if’s.” A common form of therapy effective for this is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This is a kind of therapy that helps you challenge and start to change those “what if” thoughts to find healthier thoughts and behaviors that work for you. Right now, we are all in crisis and all deserve help. Teletherapy (video therapy) has made it possible to get the right kind of help even when you can’t leave the house. Right now, many insurance providers have been waiving copays and covering telehealth therapy at 100%.
If you want to learn more for yourself or a loved one, don’t hesitate to reach out. Call us at (908) 415-2042 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org as we are proud to serve New Jersey!
Wishing you and your family good health!
Matt Berman is a dad to a two-year-old son. He is also a husband and proud dad to his adorable dog, Gambit (aka “Puppy,” according to Matt’s son). He loves to cook and play guitar. Matt is passionate about being a psychotherapist and the Assistant Director of Exceptional Wellness Counseling (EWC). EWC has locations in Manalapan and Shrewsbury, NJ and accepts a variety of insurances.
Check out Matt’s professional bio here!
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