Coping with Anxiety in the Time of COVID-19

Mar 24, 2020

 In just a matter of weeks, life as we have known it has dramatically changed with the arrival of COVID-19. And while the requirements to self-isolate or stay away from people is challenging our social fabric, people are finding ways to cope. 

Robert Trestman is a nationally known expert in psychiatry who practices at Carilion Clinic in Roanoke. We asked him how he is living with the new normal.  “I have learned over the years how to cope and how to be resilient," he responded. "One of the challenges in healthcare is to recognize that for me to be of significant value to the community, I need to think of everything as a marathon and not a sprint.”

 

Credit CDC

Trestman works with his patients on relaxation techniques, exercises, and therapies for coping with anxiety. He says, for most people, a good technique to use when you’re anxious is to put your attention on your body – not what’s going on in your mind.  

 

“When we get tense, we get, physically tight. It makes it harder to breathe and we can become trapped in a vicious cycle of finding it hard to breathe, being more anxious and getting more tense and so forth.”

 

So, the idea is to work on relaxing physically, helping the autonomic nervous system to slow down the fight or flight response. Trestman recommends a free, well known program online called the Jacobson Relaxation Method.  "They've been in use for 40 years very successfully,” he says.

 

And there are many similar programs now online, including some that you had to pay for, but are now being offered for not cost. Trestman points out that it’s important to realize that people cope with anxiety differently.

 

“There is nothing that works perfectly for everyone. And so, we have to be thoughtful about what does and doesn't work for which individual. I would suggest that for most people, having enough knowledge to understand what the real risks of the current environment are, is important to make rational decisions.”

 

It's about striking a balance. You need to keep up on information from trusted media sources, but not to the point where it becomes anxiety provoking, says Trestman. And perhaps the most interesting thing, for virtually, everyone is something, that’s –well, virtual: Since we can’t always connect with people and places in person the way we used to, our society is doing a complete ‘180’ on the whole idea of screen time.

“When there is normal social opportunity, then it was easy for us to look at excessive screen time as genuinely being isolating. Many people were abusing the internet and social media to be bullies, to cause harm to others.”

Face to face, in person contact, something that has always been vital to the human condition, seemed to be disappearing, leaving a lot of people lonely, frustrated, and confused and our society in jeopardy of disintegrating.

Now, with the advent of COVID-19 that negative becomes a positive.  “All of a sudden there is a switch” says Trestman, “because now rather than having this unoccupied time where we might get into mischief, we now have a moral obligation in so many ways to come together as a community, to support each other to make use of the technology in a really transformative way.”

 

And just like that, a pastime that got low marks for social cohesion and society as a whole, is now a lifeline for human connection cohesion in ways we might have imagined, until now.

***Editor's Note: Carilion Clinic is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.