For so many of us living with chronic illnesses and other preexisting health conditions, the onset of COVID-19 offers a unique set of challenges.
Anyone with a compromised immune system is officially considered an at-risk group, and social distancing is creating decreased contact with the outside world.
This can bring up a mix of emotions — from the anxiety of wanting to keep our bodies safe from this new virus, to the fear of what could happen if we do contract it.
As you do your best to manage this period of time with caution, it’s also important to devote time to soothing your nervous system and taking care of your mental well-being.
Here are some tips for coping with fear and other challenging emotions that may arise as you navigate life during a pandemic.
If you’re curious about what precautions you should be taking, how you might prepare for potential long-term seclusion, or how safe it is to have social contact right now, get in touch with your primary care provider or specialist. They’ll be able to answer more nuanced questions specific to you and your health condition(s).
Talking to your own doctor is particularly helpful if you’re taking medications related to your condition, as they may advise stocking up, adding supplements, or even pausing certain medications depending on how they impact your immune system.
Be careful not to let others’ (or your own) speculation and hypotheses replace getting personalized medical guidance from your team.
We aren’t meant to journey through life alone, and yet the overarching recommendation for safety right now is to separate from one another​ — ​especially if we’re part of an at-risk population. This may feel isolating and scary.
When we’re going through something difficult, the last thing we need is to feel alone. So keep in mind that there are many ways to stay connected without being in the same room.
It’s important to connect with our communities during this shared challenge.
Talk virtually with folks about what you’re feeling, what questions you have, what scares you the most, and even what mundane or funny little things happen throughout your day.
Not only can you allow your community to be there for you, but you can also provide support for them. Being of help to others is one of the best ways to feel connected and useful during a time like this.
While some people are feeling deep fear and anxiety during this pandemic, others are feeling numb and tuned out, as though it isn’t really happening.
Most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum between those two states.
Over the course of a week, a day, or even an hour, your feelings about this situation may change from fear to calm and back to worry. Know that this is to be expected.
We’re all doing our best to protect ourselves. This can show up as fear or as detachment.
Thinking of “worst-case scenarios” is a function of the brain protecting your body from harm. Reminding yourself that “it doesn’t help to panic” is also a function of the brain trying to protect you from being overwhelmed by emotion.
Both of these approaches make sense, and even if it doesn’t seem like it, your changing emotional response to the outbreak also makes sense.
So be kind to yourself and remember that it’s OK to be feeling whatever you’re feeling.
There’s a recent cartoon about therapy that cleverly reveals how the therapeutic process works. It shows a client sitting on the couch with a thought bubble filled with multicolored, tangled yarn, and her therapist helping her to organize that tangle into three separate balls of yarn.
Therapy is a way for us to make sense out of what’s happening around us​ — ​and inside of us​ — ​as we manage the ups and downs of life.
As you navigate the days and weeks ahead, checking in with a therapist about what you’re going through, what feels overwhelming, what your hopes are, and how to self-soothe, can be very beneficial.
During fearful times, it can be nice to feel like you have someone in your corner dedicated solely to your mental and emotional well-being.
Finding a therapist that practices video therapy can be especially useful during this time, as it will enable you to get quality support from your own home without having to travel.​
For many of us in the chronic illness community, regular physical movement is an important part of our care. At a time when gyms and fitness studios are closed, it can be challenging to keep up the routine.
When we spend a lot of time at home, it means we must be even more diligent about intentionally moving our bodies. Doing so​ — ​especially during times of stress​ — ​has a wonderful impact on both our physical and emotional well-being.
Whenever possible, go for a walk outdoors or just spend a few minutes in the sunlight. That may include stepping outside and putting your feet in the grass or on the pavement, going for a walk around the block, or even a little journey to a favorite spot in nature where it’s easy to keep your distance from others.
If you must stay indoors, turn on some music and have a personal dance party, find a chair yoga class or other guided movement video online, or continue any exercises prescribed to you by your physical therapist or medical team.
It’s hard to turn on the television or look at our phones without new COVID-19 updates flashing on our screens.
Constant stimulation like this can activate your nervous system and keep you in a more heightened emotional state. For many of us with health conditions, stress only exacerbates our symptoms.
Try managing your media input by setting aside a limited time during the day to catch up on the news. If social media accounts you follow are making you feel anxious or angry, remember that it’s OK to unfollow them or take a break from your feed from time to time.
Similarly, consider limiting other stimuli such as caffeine, suspenseful movies, and stress-inducing interpersonal interactions, which can all contribute negatively to your overall sense of well-being.
Notice what works for you and what doesn’t, and be intentional about limiting those factors that heighten your anxiety.
Surround yourself with sounds, smells, interactions, and resources that feel good to you.
Now is a good time to turn on your favorite comedy, bake cookies, listen to a podcast you enjoy, connect with loved ones, take a hot bath, read a book you love, or turn on a playlist that soothes you.
These intentional shifts in your environment and activities may seem small, but during a time that can feel chaotic, they can make a difference.
Notice what you enjoy, what helps you connect with your aliveness, what makes you laugh, and what helps you relax — and do more of it. Your nervous system will thank you.
Whether you’re feeling big emotions, little emotions, or none at all, know that you’re doing your best to navigate a tricky time in our world.
Each day may feel different from the last, and that’s OK. Be kind to yourself, connect with helpful resources and people, and stay in touch with your community as we move through this together.
Lauren Selfridge is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, working online with people living with chronic illness as well as couples. She hosts the interview podcast, “This Is Not What I Ordered,” focused on full-hearted living with chronic illness and health challenges. Lauren has lived with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis for over 5 years and has experienced her share of joyful and challenging moments along the way. You can learn more about Lauren’s work here, or follow her and her podcast on Instagram.