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Managing the Emotional Challenges of a Prolonged Pandemic

Managing the Emotional Challenges of a Prolonged PandemicWhenever I think about COVID-19, I can’t help but picture Steve Urkel, the fictional character on the 1980s sitcom Family Matters. While entertaining, Urkel was relentless, irritating, and disruptive – just like COVID-19. Unlike Urkel, there is nothing entertaining about COVID-19. In fact, many of us are finding ourselves increasingly anxious and overwhelmed by this persistent pandemic. 

It is important to know that anxiety is a normal and helpful emotion. Anxiety is our brain’s way of alerting us to danger. It is like our brain’s smoke alarm. Unfortunately, anxiety is only an effective alarm when the danger is visible, fixed, and short-term; COVID-19 has been anything but this. We cannot see the virus, it has been very unpredictable and it certainly is not short-term. Just this past December, we celebrated COVID-19’s 2nd birthday. It feels like the minute we start to understand the virus and things return to normal, something changes.

Anxiety flourishes in spaces filled with uncertainty and instability. For some, the anxiety bell has adjusted and recalibrated to this new reality – it is no longer a deafening alarm. For others, however, anxiety has become a prominent and debilitating feature of life – deafening sounds and intrusive flashing lights signaling danger more often than not.

Anxiety can look different depending on who is experiencing it. For some, anxiety is primarily thought-based, the “what if” thoughts that lead us to anticipate potential catastrophe. For others, anxiety is largely physical, with symptoms such as a racing heart, clammy hands, and overall restlessness. Anxiety is no longer healthy or helpful when it prevents you from living your life and enjoying relationships. Unhealthy anxiety might look like excessive handwashing, cleaning and sanitizing, feeling restless or fatigued, having difficulty sleeping or experiencing insomnia, having trouble concentrating, being irritable or feeling tense.

So, what can we do to manage the emotional toll of this prolonged situation? How can we find calm when there is a legitimate danger out there that we cannot see or control?

Establish and Maintain a Routine

For those who have been working from home over the past two years, you have gotten out of the house significantly less often than pre-Covid times. Do what you can to maintain a routine. Dress for the day; get out of your pajamas and into your “work-from-home clothes.” Start and end your day at a regular work time and take a scheduled lunch break away from your work area. Taking a brisk walk during lunch can help you feel refreshed. Routine and predictability can help to reduce stress and anxiety.

Be Prepared, Not Scared

Anxiety thrives on making us focus on what we cannot control. Draw a circle on a piece of paper. Inside the circle write down all the things (related to COVID) that you can control (e.g. getting vaccinated, washing your hands, wearing a mask, social distancing, etc.) Outside the circle write down the things you can’t control (other people, the virus, etc.). When you find yourself feeling anxious, remind yourself of all the things you have done and continue to do to reduce your risk.

Limit Your Intake of COVID-Related News

Identify one or two reputable sources of information related to COVID-19 and limit how much attention you give to the daily coverage. Avoid sensationalized headlines and articles. Many news sites will post anxiety-producing headlines to attract your attention. Be aware and be careful. Do not allow yourself to be held captive by their news cycles. News outlets make money by stirring up your anxiety.

Engage in Self-care

This prolonged pandemic has burdened us in ways that most have never experienced before. It is more important now than ever before to take care of ourselves. Purposefully make time to prioritize yourself, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and creatively. Remind yourself of the things you like to do and self-schedule some time to engage in this activity during the week. If you miss going to the gym but aren’t comfortable being around others, spend some time outside or schedule a regular exercise time at home and search for  some YouTube workout videos. Meditation is a helpful tool to combat stress and anxiety. Sitting in a quiet area practicing deep breathing techniques can help release the tension in your body and refresh your mind. Paint your nails, sketch, journal, FaceTime with friends, etc. Get creative and find a way to do things that bring you joy.

COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon and neither is anxiety. This is not something we can control, but we do have some power to manage how we let it affect us. Focusing on what we can control will help us feel more balanced and relaxed. Work to build your resilience to the stress of the unknown. Be purposeful about setting and keeping a routine and practicing self-care. Good physical and mental health habits help to build resilience to stress, anxiety and depression. If you or a loved-one are suffering from anxiety that is negatively affecting your daily life, talk to your doctor or seek the help of a trained mental health therapist who can help you gain the skills necessary to achieve balance and joy. Anxiety is a very common and treatable disorder and you do not have to suffer alone.


Jessie Davis, LCSW-C, is a licensed clinical social worker providing therapy for children and adolescents at Brook Lane’s Frederick Thrive program, a family-focused program that assists children in building relationships, coping, and communication skills. She has a special interest in helping children and adults build coping skills to help with the emotional stress of the prolonged COVID pandemic.