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University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)

UNLV Mental Health Expert Offers Strategies for Combating Coronavirus Anxiety as Communities Reopen

By now, we all understand the importance of washing our hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

We know that we should clean high-touch surfaces regularly, and avoid touching our faces.

We know that wearing a mask protects those around us.

These activities help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but can also be a powerful set of tools in our arsenal to combat feelings of anxiety as states continue forward with reopening plans.

“Focusing on the few things that you have control over, and narrowing it down into a manageable framework helps to declutter the brain,” said Dr. Michelle Paul, psychologist and director of The PRACTICE Mental Health Clinic at UNLV. “When the brain thinks ‘I have 50 things to worry about,’ it feels like it’s getting attacked from all angles. But when you focus on those things that you can control, it frees you up to be able to make decisions and go about your day.”

Restaurants and bars are opening their doors. Water parks and community pools are beckoning families to come visit.

And people are headed back to work — either for the first time in a few months, or transitioning back to an in-person setting after working from home.

Here, Paul provides some strategies on how to work through feelings of anxiety as people and communities transition into the next phase of recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

As states, including Nevada, continue on with their various phases of reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, why are people feeling anxious about returning to work or other activities outside of the home?

We’ve been successfully educated about the dangers of failing to take this virus seriously. It is a serious virus which spreads rapidly, and affects more groups of people than we originally thought. And you can’t see it, so you can’t avoid it. There’s a certain amount of generalized anxiety around it because until we have a vaccine, there is always going to be a level of risk that’s higher than what we’re used to, say with the flu for example.

And if you get sick, we have also been successfully educated to appreciate that we can’t rely on it being a mild set of symptoms. It can be very serious, even for young healthy people.

So all of that leads to you walking out of your home every day with the possibility of contracting illness that could be very serious for you. And there’s no way to understand how serious it can be for each individual person because doctors, researchers, and public health officials are still learning about the disease.

It certainly affects vulnerable groups but it also affects those of us who are not vulnerable. And because it can be passed by people who are non-symptomatic, it makes it very difficult to have a handle on where the danger is.

There is a real danger, and so naturally, there is a real fear.

Can feelings of anxiety differ depending on the activity?

The answer is yes, I would expect that to be true. People are going to feel differing levels of anxiety depending on the nature of the activity and the amount of risk that the activity poses, given what we know about the disease. We’ve been educated to know that COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets. And so that means that when you’re in a more densely populated area, there’s a higher chance of exposure to infected respiratory droplets.

So closed spaces where there’s a lot of density in terms of the numbers of people, is going to be a higher risk. In closed spaces with lots of people coming in from other parts of the country or the world, where the infection rate is higher, there’s an even higher risk. If there’s a concert, and people are coming in from California, Arizona, downtown Las Vegas, or Henderson, there’s more risk.

But if you’re going to a birthday party with another family that you know has been isolated, and they’ve not gone anywhere and you have not gone anywhere, and nobody has shown any symptoms for two weeks, you can feel pretty comfortable that that birthday party is relatively safe. You can also feel relatively safe going on a hike outdoors.

It’s all, however, on a continuum, because there’s not going to be a zero risk activity until we can all get vaccinated.

What about when it comes to returning to work?

When it comes to working outside the home, we know that work is not the same for everyone. The extent to which someone feels anxious about going into work is going to depend on the level of risk associated with that particular work environment.

Are you working in a restaurant with lots and lots of tourists coming in? Are you working in a small office where your interaction with the public is only a handful of people a day? Are you sitting in a big office space with cubicles and 100 people working?

If everybody’s in their office, and everyone is wearing masks, and the doors are closed, and employees are screening and saying they’re symptom free, that’s a lower risk, and presumably lower anxiety work environment than a higher density office space where you can’t just close your door.

What are some strategies that people can employ to work through their anxieties?

On a personal level, it helps, and can even be calming to go to reliable resources, like the CDC and the Southern Nevada Health District. There are some really great, easy-to-read guidelines on how to comport yourself so that you can minimize personal risk.

You can also alleviate some anxiety by understanding the data. Visit the Nevada Health Response website and see that the rate of testing is going up, while the percentage of people testing positive is going down. This data can reassure you that the state is getting a handle on it. It doesn’t mean that you completely stop all protocols, but it means that what we’re doing is working, so keep doing it. If those numbers start to creep up again, then you can remind yourself that you can adjust your behavior accordingly.

I know it sounds simple, but one of the main ways to protect yourself is very frequent handwashing, and keeping your hands away from your face. It’s about remembering what you have control over. We have control over quite a bit, and can make choices that are wise under the circumstances.

You can wash your hands and clean high-touch surfaces frequently, wear a mask, and practice safe social distancing. When you choose to wear a mask, you can remember that it’s helping to protect others. We all are in this together, watching out for each other — so take comfort in that.

What can employers do to help ease anxieties that their employees might be feeling?

People need to feel psychologically safe. And I think that managers in workplaces have a great deal of influence on the extent to which their staff members feel safe. Psychological safety may mean that employers might have to go above and beyond in terms of implementing policies, procedures, and protocols than what might initially feel necessary.

It’s important for managers and leaders to communicate, communicate, communicate. Communicate early and often, and check in: Here’s what we’re thinking of doing — how does that sound to you? Is there anything we’re missing? Is there anything we didn’t think about? Can we stagger shifts? Can we create traffic flow that minimizes bumping into people?

These kinds of questions will help people feel like they have a place to share what they’re worried about, and that they feel heard.

Employers need to reassure their employees that health and safety is the paramount concern. And employers also need to reassure their employees that if things get worse again, they’ll be protected. They need to communicate that they are not going to be careless or naive, and that they’ll monitor the situation, which continues to evolve every day, closely.

It’s about trying to find the balance between the risk of not working and the risk of getting ill.

Are there other strategies for combating anxiety that might not seem as obvious at first?

Compassion — finding compassion for ourselves and others is really important.

When you think about having compassion for yourself, you make room for taking a break from social media. You make room for allowing yourself to have the feelings you’re feeling when you’re feeling them, validating those for yourself and others. And you find opportunities to try to infuse hope, joy, and playfulness despite the dangers that are out there.

You can define self compassion and self-care for yourself. For me, this weekend, I just really needed to clean. I needed to do a deep scrub. But self care the weekend before that was going on a really big hike — being outside, breathing in the Mt. Charleston air, and enjoying a change of scenery.

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