3 tips for coping with panic attacks during COVID-19

Anxiety and panic attacks can be very distressing. Many people are suffering from new or more frequent panic attacks during the coronavirus crisis. Panic attacks are related to a fear of fear itself, also known as “anticipatory anxiety”. We’ve got three top tips to help you break out of this vicious circle of fear.

1: Observe your anxiety

This tip might sound obvious, but it’s very effective. Rather than losing yourself in your anxiety, try to distance yourself from it and observe it neutrally, like a scientist tracking an interesting phenomenon, or a small child looking at a new object. When you notice that you’re beginning to feel anxious, take a step back and observe your feelings. Pay attention to what you’re thinking, and try to notice any early warning signs of anxiety. This helps you to get to know yourself and your body.

2: Keep your own limitations in mind

Anxiety can make us avoid certain places or activities. This avoidance behaviour can greatly impair your quality of life. You might miss certain things and wish you could do them again. Try not to dwell on the things you’ve given up in the past, but think about what you’d like to do in the future. Ask yourself what you would do if anxiety no longer controlled you? Where would you go, and what goals would you pursue? You could write down these goals and use the list to motivate you in your fight against anxiety. You might need to be creative to think of goals that are realistically achievable given the current crisis.

3: Face your fears

The most effective remedy against fear is courage. In psychotherapy, we call confronting your fears “exposure”. Remember that list you made in Tip 2? Now go ahead and do everything on it! Try to do even those things that make you feel anxious. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Take it step by step so you don’t get overwhelmed. Try to improve your skills and be a little more daring each time. 

It’s normal to feel anxious when trying to conquer your fears. It just shows that you’re working on the right goals. To manage this anxiety, try to use Tip 1 and observe your feelings as neutrally as possible. Remember, practice makes perfect! Even if you don’t succeed in overcoming your anticipatory anxiety right away, you’ll notice a change over time, despite any setbacks. 

We hope these tips help you reduce the fear in your everyday life and increase your well-being. Good luck! We believe in you.


7 tips for dealing with fear during the coronavirus crisis

We hear conversations about coronavirus wherever we go, whether in the supermarket, in the hallway, or on the phone with friends. The new restrictions intended to fight the spread of the virus can make us feel very helpless. Helplessness creates fear. How can we cope with this feeling? And where does fear come from in the first place?

1. Fear is useful

From an evolutionary point of view, fear has an important function. If we see a dangerous animal, for example, our fear response tells us to run away. Being afraid is a perfectly normal and appropriate feeling in the face of a threat. Our health is the most important thing we have, and our body and mind therefore do everything they can to keep us healthy. Fear is one method they use to protect us. It makes us cautious, and caution is appropriate in the current situation.

2. Can we be too afraid?

Fear becomes a problem when it leads to panic rather than caution. It’s not uncommon for fear to have a negative effect on our everyday lives and make us behave irrationally. The Yerkes-Dodson Law (named after the two US-American psychologists Robert Mearns Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson) addresses this topic of rational behaviour. It tells us that we perform best with an average level of physical and mental “arousal”. If we are too excited, including being too afraid, we tend to lose our cool and make bad decisions. 

A current example of this is food hoarding. Fear of not having enough to survive on makes us buy more food than necessary, and puts everyone at risk of a food shortage.

3. How can I tell whether I’m (too) anxious and tense?

There are various signs that can help you recognise when you’re becoming increasingly tense and anxious. 

Early warning signs can include bad mood, irritability, increased or decreased appetite, nervousness, and mental or physical restlessness. You can prevent fear from clouding your judgement by observing it more consciously. Ask yourself: on a scale of 1-10, how scared am I right now? This can help you to rationalize the fear. Don’t worry if you’re high on the scale. According to Yerkes and Dodson, a moderate level of fear can be beneficial. The goal isn’t to always be low down on the scale, but to remain cautious without panicking. The next question is: how can we get our fear levels down?

4. Protect yourself from fear-mongers

An effective method in psychotherapy is known as stimulus control. This involves consciously doing more of what promotes your mental health, and distancing yourself from things that negatively affect your wellbeing. Try to pay lots of attention over the next few days to things that make you feel calmer, and limit your contact with anything that increases your coronavirus anxiety. 

For example, lots of people begin to feel very anxious if they check the news on an hourly basis. Instead, you could just check once in the morning and once in the evening, and leave it at that. There are also many email newsletters available that give news updates. Observe your feelings and try to find out how much information is good for you. There’s no reason to stay up to date around the clock – it will only increase your anxiety.

5. Stay active

Fear involves a physical stress reaction, which is controlled by our hormones. Exercise helps to break down stress hormones. You don’t even need to run a marathon – moderate exercise is enough. You could take the stairs instead of the elevator, go for a walk, do some push-ups, or try an online exercise video. It’s time to start exercising from home, as well as working from home!

6. Change your perspective

We will never be able to eliminate fear entirely – it’s part of the evolutionary heritage that helps us survive. It’s therefore important to also learn to accept it. In fact, focusing too hard on reducing anxiety can only make us more afraid, just as focusing on trying not to think of a blue elephant will make you think of a blue elephant. Just as we can’t control our thoughts, nor can we fully control our fear. However, there are plenty of strategies to help you cope with anxious thoughts. 

Try to consciously notice when you are afraid and observe your fear as neutrally as possible. Watch it increase, decrease, and change. It might turn into panic, then anxiety, and then back into fear, before the phone rings and it disappears completely! This kind of neutral observation can lower your fear levels by helping you to gain some distance and realize: I am not my fear.

7. SOS against fear

Severe anxiety is caused by a physical reaction. The two nervous systems, parasympathetic and sympathetic, are responsible for this reaction. The parasympathetic nervous system is involved in calm states, whereas the sympathetic nervous system is activated when we feel excited or anxious. If you feel like you might have a panic attack, you can use this knowledge to calm down on a biological level. 

Try a short breathing exercise. Breathe out for longer than you breathe in. You can count your inhalation and exhalation in one second intervals. By breathing out for a few beats longer than you breathe in, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Once your body has calmed down a little and you notice that you are feeling less anxious, you can reflect on what made you feel so afraid.

5 helpful tips for mental wellbeing in the coronavirus crisis

The coronavirus crisis caught us all off guard. Our politicians were forced to make quick decisions that are having a huge impact on our everyday lives. We suddenly have to adapt to a new situation, at a time when we’re also feeling a lot of fear and anxiety. It’s therefore important that as well as looking after our physical health, we pay attention to our mental health. Now that the initial shock has subsided, it’s time to take back control and actively work on your mental wellbeing. Here are our 5 top tips for looking after yourself!

1. Practice gratitude

You might be fed up of hearing that we need to make the best of the COVID-19 crisis. That’s easier said than done, and it can be hard to see the positive side of the situation. If you or your friends belong to a risk group, an optimistic approach might seem particularly misguided.

A change of perspective might help here. Instead of trying to find positive things about the crisis itself, focus on unrelated things that enrich your everyday life. Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean trying to conjure something good out of something bad, but rather focusing more on things that are already good.

Why not try writing down 5 things you are grateful for each night before you go to bed? Be creative! Perhaps a nice chat with a friend comes to mind, or a delicious meal. It could even be something as simple as feeling the sun shining on your face.

2. Plan nice activities

The current safety precautions mean huge changes for most of us: we can’t go to work or send our children to school. Even if we support these measures, it’s understandable that it feels like a loss of freedom. Not feeling in control can have a huge impact on our mental wellbeing. 

It’s therefore important to plan things we enjoy into our everyday routine. You might have to be a bit more creative than usual to work round the restrictions. How about reading, talking on the phone with a friend, trying out a new recipe, watching your favourite TV show, going on a bike tour, or starting an online course? 

Try to make time for at least one nice activity a day. You might even find a new hobby! We promise that you’ll soon feel the positive effect on your mental health.

3. Sleep well!

A good night’s sleep is important for feeling rested and having enough energy for the day ahead. It’s not surprising that many of us are currently having trouble sleeping. Perhaps you’re finding it hard to get to sleep, or keep waking up during the night. Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to improve your sleep. 

First, check your sleep hygiene. Do you always go to bed and get up at the same time? You might need to set an alarm clock, even if you don’t actually have to get up early. Do you have a sleep ritual that you do every night before bed? You could try meditation exercises. Do you use your bed for anything other than sleeping? Try not to use it for other things like working or watching TV. It’s important to avoid blue light from screens before bedtime. 

You should also avoid exercising and eating for a few hours before bed, as these activities activate your body and can keep you awake. Pay attention to your caffeine consumption. Try not to drink more than 3-4 cups of coffee a day, and avoid drinking caffeine at all from around 2 pm.

4. Live by your values

You might not be able to pursue concrete goals right now, but you can do other things that express the same values. Our values serve as a compass and show us which direction is right for us. They are not affected by the pandemic.

For example, suppose you’d planned a trip to Asia and are now unable to go. The main value behind your love of travel might be curiosity. You can still pursue this value, for example by learning a new language or buying a book about culture. Of course it’s not the same, but it follows the same value and fulfils the same need. 

Other common values are love, compassion, social connection, and self-care (anything you do for yourself and your well-being). Ask yourself: what are my values? Which values have carried me through life so far? How could I live out my values despite the current pandemic?

5. Stay in touch

Humans are social beings: we need closeness and contact to feel comfortable. It’s very important that you make sure to stay in touch with family and friends despite social distancing. Technology is our saviour here. You can chat and send voice messages. Try to make appointments for Skype or phone calls – this can help give your everyday life structure. 

Another way to feel more connected is through compassion meditations. You could try an exercise known as “Metta meditation”. Close your eyes and focus first on feeling love and compassion for yourself. Then extend this compassion further and further: first to friends, then to acquaintances, then to the city and country you live in, and finally to the whole world.

We hope that these tips gave you some inspiration for coping with the current situation. Have fun trying them out, and good luck with strengthening your mental wellbeing!