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The Clinic on Dupont Toronto

Exploring the functionality of our anxiety during COVID-19

The last few weeks has stimulated a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability consequently leading to anxiety for most people. We are all ingrained with the emotion of anxiety, which serves a function to let us know that there is either actual threat or potential threat in our environment. Furthermore, anxiety can often be stimulated when there is uncertainty and unpredictability as we all have a desire to want to predict and control our environment as it brings us a sense of comfort and safety. Thus, given the current pandemic, it is completely natural and warranted to feel a certain level of anxiety. This anxiety can actually serve a function, but up until a certain point, after which it can start to become dysfunctional. I like to refer to a bell-shape curve to help explain the functionality of this emotion. (This bell-shape curve can also be applied to any emotion, thought or behaviour).

standard deviations chart

A dose of anxiety in the current context can serve a function to help us mitigate the chances of contracting COVID-19. Some anxiety can motivate us to practice proper hygiene by washing our hands for 20 seconds when coming home, to practice social distancing and self-isolation. If we had zero anxiety and weren’t worried at all about COVID-19, we would be less inclined to implement preventative measures. Thus, some anxiety can be useful to help motivate certain behaviours, which is illustrated by the left side of the curve. We can determine whether our emotion is serving us a function by asking ourselves if there are more benefits than costs by having this emotion.


Now let’s say I’m extremely anxious about contracting COVID-19 whereby as oppose to washing my hands for 20 seconds one time, I wash my hands 12 times for 20 seconds. I also notice a spiral of thoughts, which is taking away my level of concentration and focus to be able to work from home. I often notice thinking about the worst-case scenario and I’m constantly feeling overwhelmed. This level of anxiety would be illustrated by the right side of the curve, whereby it is no longer serving me a function but is now becoming dysfunctional. There are now more costs than benefits of having this emotion. 


When we are noticing that the emotion is turning from functional to dysfunctional (illustrated by the peak at point 0), we could try to regain control of the intensity of our emotion through several different strategies including: 


1) Practising mindfulness and staying present in the here and now

  • We could practice a technique called “5-4-3-2-1”, whereby we could look around the room and name 5 things we see, 4 things we could touch, 3 things we could hear, 2 things we could smell and 1 thing we could taste. By taping into our 5 senses, it enables us to redirect our attention to the present moment, not allowing room for thoughts about the worst-case scenario or other unhelpful thoughts. 
  • We could look around the room and name colors we see. Again it enables us to refocus our attention to something in the present moment. 


2) Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  • Start off by taking a localized body part, for example your right hand. Then slowly start to clench it into a fist and just notice the tension in your hand. Next, slowly start to unclench it into a relaxed state and noticed the relaxed state. We could repeat this step for as many times as we would like. From there, we could move on to our right arm, then left hand, then left arm and through to our whole body. Again, this method enables us to refocus our attention away from unhelpful thinking and redirects our attention to something in the present moment.


3) If we notice going down a spiral of thoughts by thinking of the worst-case scenario, we could dissect the situation into internal versus external sources of control

  • Within the current context there are several things within our control and many things outside of our control. If we focus on the things outside of our control, it will likely contribute to heighten anxiety and stress. For example, if I notice the thought “what if I get COVID-19” or “what if I come across someone who has it when I go to the grocery store”. These thoughts are not serving us a function since we have no control over whether or not we come across someone who might have it at the grocery store. Thus, we could name these thoughts as being outside of our control and try to drop the thought using a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) strategy called “thought stoppers”. We could think of these thoughts as “hot potatoes”, whereby when we notice them we could think of physically dropping these thoughts or thinking of them as “stop signs”. We could then redirect our attention by focusing on things within our internal control. For example, we could practice keeping our distance from others while grocery shopping, wearing a mask while being out and practicing proper hand washing when returning home from the store.


theclinicondupont-lisa-zemanovichLisa Zemanovich, MSW, RSW

Lisa is a Registered Social Worker, Psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of trauma/PTSD, somatization and mood disorders. She received her Master’s degree from the University of Toronto and utilizes an eclectic approach, drawing from evidence-based practices when working with clients.

Posted April 14, 2020
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