- Rising coronavirus cases in the US have prompted a resurgence of pandemic-related stress.
- Psychologists shared seven tips for managing this "covanxiety."
- Giving back to others and limiting news intake are helpful strategies, they said.
Psychiatrist Eva Ritmo received an email from a member of her 20-person book club on Monday: The friend was wondering whether the group should stop meeting indoors due to rising coronavirus cases in Los Angeles.
Such a decision was more obvious during the pandemic's first year, when vaccines were only a distant hope and public-health guidance clearly emphasized avoiding indoor gatherings. But the CDC's recent decision to recommend masks even for vaccinated people in high-transmission areas has led many Americans to second-guess their behavior.
The US's daily coronavirus cases have risen more than seven-fold in the last month, and daily hospitalizations have more than doubled. Though vaccines protect against severe disease and death, less than 1% of vaccinated Americans may still develop symptomatic "breakthrough infections," according to the CDC.
Many Americans who'd assumed the worst was over — including retail workers, performers, and others required to work in person — are now reporting a resurgence of pandemic-related stress, or "covanxiety." A new Axios-Ipsos poll found that half of Americans believe returning to pre-COVID activities is risky, and fewer Americans are dining out or visiting friends and family than in previous months.
That anxiety isn't misplaced, Ritmo told Insider.
"You don't want to have so much anxiety that you're not doing anything, but you also don't want to have too little anxiety," Ritmo said. "We have to remember anxiety is our friend and it alerts us to danger."
But there are ways to manage anxiety so that you can make informed decisions and lead a fulfilling life in the midst of uncertainty. Ritmo's book club, for instance, decided to meet outdoors, with masks.
Ritmo and psychologist Emma Seppala each gave Insider tips for reducing stress during this Delta variant surge.
Moderate your news intake
Seppala encouraged people to set boundaries for their news diets.
"When you are in a stressed and anxious place, you are seeing everything through a lens of fear," Seppala, who works as the science director at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, said. "You are going to be more prone to messages that also have that lens."
Ritmo said she prefers to read the news instead of watching it on television.
"You don't need to know the COVID numbers multiple times a day. You might not even need them multiple times a week," she said. "You just need them when you're making plans to see which direction things are trending and what's safe for you."
Try meditating in the morning and at night
Seppala said she meditates in the morning using an app (she puts her phone on
so she doesn't get distracted with notifications). Then she meditates again before she hits the pillow at night.
Studies have shown that
programs can have at least a moderate impact on reducing anxiety.
"When things are continuously crazy, you need to have something that continuously anchors you," Seppala said.
Yoga, exercise, or spending time in nature help in the same way, she added.
Don’t force yourself into situations that feel unsafe
It's tempting to give in to peer pressure to dine indoors, attend a party, or go to a bar — but you won't have much fun if you're feeling unsafe, Ritmo said. In many cases, she added, your gut instinct isn't an overreaction.
"Everybody has an opportunity to decide for themselves what they want to do and where they want to draw the line," Ritmo said. "If someone is pushing you past that, then that's not being respectful, and you have to really look at: Is this a relationship that really works for you? Or is this somebody who's really looking out for themselves?"
Remember to breathe if you feel panicked
Stress activates our sympathetic nervous system — a state of arousal that alerts you to danger — so you might feel an elevated heart rate or start breathing faster. Breathing exercises counter that stress by activating our parasympathetic nervous system, or resting response.
"Make sure that you're paying attention to your breathing, taking really slow breaths, holding at the top, and then exhaling even longer," Ritmo said.
If you have more time, Seppala recommends a method called SKY Breath Meditation — a series of breathing exercises that may reduce anxiety and stress, according to her research.
Have a meal or snack to calm down
Sharing a meal with someone or enjoying a snack can activate our resting response — if it's done mindfully, Ritmo said.
"Eating is something that we're supposed to do to help ourselves relax," she said. "That's why we are supposed to do it with our friends or with our family or a nice book. We're not supposed to do it with the television blaring at us."
Dining indoors at restaurants may not align with the CDC's current guidelines, though, since it requires going mask-less.
Do something kind for others
Whether it's dropping off flowers for an elderly neighbor or sending a little gift to a friend who's feeling overwhelmed, acts of service are "hugely beneficial for your mental wellbeing," Seppala said.
Studies have shown that people derive satisfaction from helping others, which can in turn lead them to happier, healthier lives.
Think about what you’re grateful for
Seppala recommended focusing on any of the pandemic's silver linings in your life to distract from negative thoughts.
"Maybe you're home with your kids and it's hard to work, but at least you're with them," she said.
Research continues to show that gratitude can improve mental-health outcomes. And unlike the pandemic, expressing gratitude is something you can control, Seppala said.
"Life's unpredictable. Current events are unpredictable," she said. "The only thing you can take care of is the state of your own mind."