Health & Wellness: Coping with anxiety while social distancing

Health & Wellness: Coping with anxiety while social distancing
(File Photo)

By Cathy Canfield

In the 15 years since becoming a therapist, I cannot say that I have experienced any crisis that has resulted in the intense impact that COVID-19 has had on our clients and community. Anytime a local, national or international tragedy is featured in the media, it is common for us to see pockets of clients whose symptoms increase for a short amount of time. This crisis is tangibly more pressing on our collective mental health.

Anxiety levels increase during crises such as this global pandemic. When there is any threat, perceived or real, to physical safety or security, it is not uncommon for individuals and communities to experience a shift from everyday functioning into emotional survival mode. When in survival mode, the fight-or-flight responses activate in our bodies, with raised adrenaline and cortisol levels. Anxiety, anger, mood swings and physical symptoms can all result from these physiological changes that happen when we become afraid.

For those experiencing elevated anxiety during this difficult time, getting back to the basics can prove the most effective strategy for coping. Because routines are now upended, adding a deliberate routine to the day is important. Examples may include attending to a healthy sleep schedule, eating mindful and regular meals, maintaining daily physical activity and other self-care habits.

The next layer lies in finding creative ways to stay connected to our friends, family and community while aligning with social distancing recommendations. Video messaging, Facebook live streaming classes and old-fashioned telephone calls can work wonders when we need to feel safe and connected.

Grounding techniques can be used to bring one’s senses to the present when the mind wanders into the “what-ifs.” Examples of grounding exercises are meditations, breathing exercises, taking a cool shower or smelling your favorite scent in a mindful way. When self-soothing proves ineffective, professional help may be in order. Most counselors are well-equipped to aid clients in processing and learning to cope with anxiety.

In the last few weeks, many of our clients have expressed a collective fear of loss of income and the ability to provide for their families’ essential needs. Many fear the unknown and unpredictability of the moment. Some families struggle with existing stressful relationships and fear what it will be like living in close quarters for the foreseeable future.

Other predominant concerns center around fears of social isolation and the possibility of loved ones becoming ill, especially when access to healthcare may be limited. Additionally, clients who feel COVID-19 is a real threat to our public safety express distress related to community members who do not see value in taking precautions to flatten the curve and some are becoming fearful of leaving their homes.

Several counseling practices are offering teletherapy – online counseling – to new and established clients of all ages. Insurance companies across the board are recognizing teletherapy health as a valid service and many are even waiving copayments right now. At Counseling of Alexandria, we have reached out to our current clients to educate them about teletherapy and offer them continued services throughout this crisis.

We can all stay safe while continuing these important therapeutic relationships. Anyone with a smartphone, tablet or computer can go to virtual sessions with a clinician. Even after this pandemic has concluded, several practices will still have teletherapy options available. This level of accessibility for clients is paramount in preventing gaps in treatment and removing obstacles to mental health care.

The writer is director of Counseling of Alexandria, a small counseling practice that has served the Alexandria community since 2011. For more information, visit