Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many have at some point worried that they might have the coronavirus after experiencing even the slightest sniffle or cough. This anxiety, coupled with all the other stressors of COVID-19, is affecting individuals’ mental health.
Worrying that potentially harmless symptoms might be an indication of COVID-19 “is something that happens all the time, not only in my clinical practice but personally, within family, with neighbors,” says John Weigel, a licensed psychologist with Weigel Counseling Associates, Inc.
The coronavirus isn’t just impacting people who have previously experienced mental health challenges. “A lot of people who haven’t yet really dealt with anxiety in their life are having to deal with it for the first time,” says Weigel.
KFF reports that about 40% of U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder in January 2021, up from 11% who reported symptoms in January through June of 2019.
Weigel says an important part of dealing with this anxiety is choosing to believe that things will be OK and taking action to reassure oneself that this is true. “Anxiety is always greatest when there’s passivity associated with it,” says Weigel.
If a cough feels like an omen of COVID-19, Weigel suggests conducting research about one’s symptoms using reputable sources, contacting a healthcare professional for advice or getting a coronavirus test to ease some of that worry. “And when you have enough information to say, ‘I’m fine. It’ll be OK,’ believe it,” he says.
Weigel also says taking safety precautions like wearing a mask or getting the coronavirus vaccine may help decrease concern.
Anxiety usually involves “thought distortion,” says Weigel. “The problem with what’s happening right now: these things don’t have to be distortions. There’s not a distortion going on, it’s real,” he says.
Balancing the belief that things are OK with the reality of COVID-19 health and safety concerns is not simple. Weigel suggests checking in with others to verify the validity of any health concerns. “If you get this look” — Weigel purses his lips and raises his eyebrows in mock incredulity — “you’re too far out there,” he says. “We can help each other manage this.”
Leaning on others, whether they’re friends, family or counselors can be an important step in mitigating anxiety, Weigel notes. He says that some of the stigma surrounding mental health has been lifted by the pandemic because it’s very clear why individuals might not be feeling their best right now, and this might make it easier to reach out for help.
Although it may sound trite, Weigel says that eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep can genuinely help reduce anxiety, too. “You know ‘don’t operate heavy machinery [when you’re sleep deprived]?’ Well don’t operate yourself if you’re not well slept either,” he advises.
Listening to different kinds of music to shape one’s mood throughout the day may also help improve mental health, Weigel says. He suggests having different playlists for different parts of the day — maybe some upbeat jams to start the day and more calming lullabies at night.
At this point, the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on mental health are still unknown. Weigel hopes that individuals will be able to prevent the pandemic from being a catalyst for future mental health challenges by holding firmly to that belief that they are OK and that things will be all right in the future.
“Believe it. And you have to be very strong about that,” Weigel says. “It’s the difference between like a smart car and a truck. You’ve got to have a truck kind of a belief.”
If you or someone you care about are having difficulty in pandemic or otherwise, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at (800) 273-8255.