However, if you look around at some of the ways many are responding, including rushing to local supermarkets and big box stores to stock up on food, cleaning products and paper products, we see behavior that looks an awful lot like panic.
“‘Herd mentality’ is a longstanding natural phenomenon,” says Maricar Jenkins, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “We are social beings and we are influenced by our peers — we follow the herd and we don’t want to miss out. We see others doing things, such as rushing to purchase large amounts of toilet paper, and we feel the need to do the same.”
Jenkins explains that we also want control. Our minds overestimate the perceived danger related to COVID-19 and running out of supplies, while simultaneously underestimating our control over the perceived danger. So we behave in a way that gives us a sense of control over the situation.
“In reality, what we can control to reduce the spread of the virus is what the CDC and WHO are telling us: wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, stay home if you are sick, and practice social distancing,” Jenkins says. “But these recommended precautions, even though they are given by leading health experts, seem incongruent to the intense fear and anxiety we are feeling. So we behave in ways that match that level of distress — we fight over the last roll of toilet paper, forgetting that others might need just one roll, even if we may have stockpiled 100 rolls.”
How to reduce COVID-19-related panic
Jenkins says that there are concrete ways you can help yourself calm the feelings of anxiety and panic. She recommends that you first acknowledge your feelings of anxiety — don’t push them away.
Then, use grounding techniques, such as focusing on your five senses, to redirect your mind back to the “here and now” by mindfully identifying the following:
- 5 things you can see (shapes, colors or objects)
- 4 things you can hear (sounds near you or in the distance)
- 3 things you can feel (texture, temperature or your dog’s soft fur)
- 2 things you can smell (flowers, food or even hand sanitizer)
- 1 thing you can taste (toothpaste, chewing gum or a sip of coffee)
She also notes that the following coping skills can help you get through many situations, including the feelings of anxiety caused by the social distancing you’re practicing, financial effects of COVID-19 precautions, and concerns about your health and the health of loved ones:
- Create a self-soothe kit. Use your five senses to create a kit that contains items that ground and distract you. This can include a picture of your family, playlist you can download onto your phone, a piece of chocolate or a mint, scented lotion, satin scarf, stress ball and any other materials that appeal to your senses.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Try activities that reduce your physiological symptoms of anxiety, such as chest tightness, shortness of breath and muscle tension. This includes deep breathing, visual imagery, stretching and guided meditation.
- Keep moving. Perform activities that keep serotonin and endorphin levels up, including yoga and other exercises you can do at home or outside and away from groups of people, such as briskly walking or tossing a ball with your children.
- Connect with others. Decrease your feelings of loneliness. Call, text and email friends and family, post on social media (but limit your exposure to social media if you find yourself stuck on news about the coronavirus), video chat with loved ones, and even handwrite a card or letter to someone who would appreciate the gesture, such as an elderly relative.
- Journal. Take the time early each day (not before bed) to write for 10 minutes to acknowledge and express your thoughts and feelings. Don’t forget to record the things for which you are grateful, even during trying times.
- Make a list. Note one or two things you would like to accomplish every day. This should be something reasonable — organize one drawer or bake a special treat — that can give you a feeling of accomplishment.
“Don’t be afraid to share your concerns and emotions with a good friend or loved one,” Jenkins says. “You can also connect with outside providers, such as your primary care provider, psychiatrist or therapist if you are really struggling.”
According to Jenkins, you should contact your doctor if any of the following conditions apply:
- You are feeling a level of anxiety or sadness that is getting in the way of your overall functioning and significantly affecting your mood, feelings of self-worth, or relationships.
- Worry and anxiety are preventing you from taking care of yourself — properly eating, sleeping and taking prescribed medications — and connecting with your support system.
- Worry and anxiety are triggering behaviors that are making things worse, such as using substances, online gambling and excessive online shopping.
- You are having thoughts of wanting to harm yourself or end your life.
Talk to your doctor if you or a loved one are experiencing excessive sadness, anxiety or worry for an extended period. Learn more about related mental health services at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital.