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COVID-19 Series: Living in an Uncertain World

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

The last few days have been a whirlwind for our country, as we face the reality of a global pandemic and what it means for the future. Both the risk of the actual infection coupled with the upheaval of a society working toward social distancing may cause a massive change to our day to day lives. Many workplaces are moving to fully telecommuting for the time being. In many localities, schools, daycares, and other businesses are closed indefinitely. I myself have moved all sessions in my clinic online for at least the next two weeks, and probably longer.

As an anxiety specialist, I know what impact this kind of uncertainty can have on mental health. If you are living with an anxiety disorder or OCD, all of this upheaval with so many unknowns may be making for some very tough times.

If your anxiety is ramping up with the news of this virus, it is likely driving you toward efforts to make the uncertain, certain.

There are so many unknowns in the days ahead - concerns about health and finances probably chief among them. When faced with uncertainty, especially when some possible outcomes are very bad, it's normal for anxiety to ramp up as we try to do what we can to mitigate risk.

In small to medium sized doses, this risk-mitigating anxiety is a good thing. If we weren't at least a little worried about the risk of infection, we'd all go about our lives as usual, making the spread of infection a lot worse. If your anxiety is ramping up, it's okay to use that energy to follow the CDC guidelines for protecting yourself from illness, or to make a financial plan for your family.

Here's the thing - no matter what steps you take in the face of COVID, there are many scenarios that remain unknown. If you have an anxiety disorder or OCD, that may be pretty hard to tolerate, making it tempting to do things like worrying all day, checking the news every hour, stocking up with several months of supplies, or going above and beyond the CDC guidelines for handwashing and disinfecting surfaces.

Whereas following guidelines and making a plan is a good thing, excessive efforts to reduce uncertainty tend to worsen anxiety rather than provide relief.

If your actions are above and beyond, you probably know. Lots of times all you have to do is take a moment to think about it. I invite you to slow down, and ask yourself these questions.

If you're worrying a lot about COVID-19 and checking the news a lot: Am I worrying about a solveable problem? Is this leading to a useful plan?

If you're taking a lot of direct actions against COVID-19 like stocking up on supplies or washing your hands a whole lot: Is this above and beyond? Is this about fear?

Maybe you don't know for sure - it may take a discussion with a therapist to figure it out. But if you are pretty sure you're making excessive efforts to reduce uncertainty - see if you can start practicing resisting the urge. Watch your anxiety rise as you resist the urge to act on it, and see what happens. Practice tolerating the uncertainty. Do what you've decided is reasonable for safety, and allow what can't be solved to remain unsolved.

If you can't resist the urge.

If you are aware you're taking excessive actions to reduce uncertainty, but the anxiety is too intense to reduce those actions, it may be time to seek out a professional who can help you walk through it. Anxiety and OCD can be extremely powerful, especially in the face of something like a pandemic, and there's no shame in seeking out someone who can help you manage better.

For effective treatment in managing anxiety related to COVID, I highly recommend seeking out a therapist trained in CBT for anxiety (for OCD, try the IOCDF provider search; for other anxiety disorders, try the ABCT or ADAA directories). CBT anxiety specialists are specifically trained to help you tolerate uncertainty even in the worst of times.

No portion of this blog post should be taken as medical advice. Be sure to consult a licensed mental health professional if you are curious about how this information applies specifically to you and your personal treatment plan.


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