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COVID-19 Pandemic Making You Anxious? Ateneo Psychologist Gives Us Advice

We talked to Dr. Karina Galang Fernandez, Executive Director of Ateneo Bulatao Center, about how to manage fear and panic during situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.
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On March 11, COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). The Philippines has since been put under Code Red Sublevel 2 and class suspensions as well as community quarantines have been enforced in Metro Manila for 30 days.

While we take all measures to protect ourselves from the virus, there's also another thing that might be crucial even in a health crisis like the global COVID-19 situation: our mental health. Many of us might be experiencing anxiety or worry over the situation without even realizing how severe these feelings are becoming and how serious their impact is on how we go about our everyday lives and how we respond in times of crises.

We talked to Dr. Karina Galang Fernandez, Executive Director of Ateneo Bulatao Center, about how to manage fear and panic during cases like the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to know if our actions are already signs of panic

Dr. Fernandez points out the familiar, more common expressions of panic like: becoming more hyperactive than usual, being very restless, or doing lots of big movements. However, she also points out, “We have to realize that while these are the common manifestations, we also have to understand that the stress from this and other problematic situations might also manifest in the totally opposite way.” Being more quiet or withdrawn and isolating yourself are also signs to watch out for.

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At the end of day, Dr. Fernandez emphasizes that we should observe any significant changes in our usual habits. “Are we noticing changes in their everyday behavior and how they usually respond to different stimuli? We want to watch out for certain changes in behavior and emotional state.”

How to stay level-headed when you’re stuck at home

Given the extended class suspension, community quarantine, and social distancing measures imposed in Metro Manila in response to the community transmission of COVID-19, individuals are highly encouraged to stay at home. Having limited exposure to what has been happening outside our homes aside from what we see or read from media outlets and on the Internet, many may feel helpless or uneasy.

Dr. Fernandez advises that maintaining certain parts of your routines as much as possible will help ease your feelings of restlessness and give you a sense of control in situations we cannot regulate. “What’s good in a way is that students are still required to do work, so we have online assessment and online lectures,” she says. “Trying to still have some semblance of your everyday life is good. Having a sort of routine, a sense of productivity, can really help you contain any sense of panic or distress because your mind is still focused on things you can do and can control.”

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How to manage feelings of anxiety or panic

Dr. Fernandez shares a few guidelines on managing our fears and anxieties in times like this:

  • Take a breath. Practicing breathing exercises helps us calm down.
  • Limit your daily news intake. To avoid being overwhelmed, don’t listen to or read the news all the time. Choose a certain period in the day when you look up news updates instead of constantly refreshing your feeds.
  • More importantly, choose where you get your news—refer to media news outlets instead of reading every Viber and Facebook message that comes out that’s not connected to credible sources.
  • If you start to feel overwhelmed, shift your attention to something else, like listening to music or watching your favorite YouTubers’ vlogs. Dr. Fernandez advises, “If you like or enjoy a certain hobby, engage in those. It’s really about not drowning yourself with information that would only make your feelings worse.”
  • Find a support system. Fernandez says, “If you notice yourself spiraling, call someone, text someone, Messenger someone, because we know that with any kind of stress, talking to someone is helpful.” 

How to handle other people’s feelings of anxiety or panic

Managing our own stress is one thing, but in cases like the COVID-19 pandemic, we aren’t the only ones who may be feeling stressed or panicked by the situation. The people close to us—our parents, siblings, friends—may also be under a similar sense of distress.

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If any of your family members express feelings of fear or anxiety, Dr. Fernandez’ first advice is to exercise compassion. “We know that empathy can be very, very helpful. Allow them to bring it out. Validate, respect, and empathize with what they are thinking. Share with them the tips mentioned above.”

For younger children, Dr. Fernandez says that affirming the correct actions will help. “For younger children, validate what they’re doing right, like washing their hands and staying at home.”

For our parents, Dr. Fernandez says that, “a lot of patience is important. Contradicting them or raising your voice to them will only agitate them further.”

Instead, maybe having an exchange of ideas with them might help. “Discuss with them, ‘What else pa kaya can we do, mom?’ or ‘How did you handle stress before? What helped you handle them?’ Trying to bring up other stories of when they were able to rise of to adversity or how they managed and remained resilient in the past can also be helpful.”

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While empathy is very important (Wouldn’t you want someone else to identify with and validate your concerns as well?), we are not obligated to manage someone else’s distress if we are not in a proper disposition to help. If you feel that you are unable to aid someone else handle their worries, Dr. Fernandez’ advice is to respectfully inform them without being dismissive of their worries. “You can say, ‘I’m hearing your worries about this; I’m also panicking in my own internal state.’ I think rather than brush them off immediately, allow them to say it for a while and echo their thoughts.”

At the end of the day, Dr. Fernandez emphasizes the importance of caring for our mental health, even during a crisis that predominantly affects physical health. For her last piece of advice, Dr. Fernandez says, “By taking care of your mental health, you become more physically resilient; your psychological well-being can affect your physical well-being.”

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