Managing Anxiety and Stress in a Time of Pandemic
The views and opinions expressed in this collection are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Drew Tran is a third-year medical student at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. He is passionate about mental health and wellness and strives to help others incorporate wellness practices into their own lives. When not busy studying, you can find him singing along to musicals, climbing some big rocks, and eating something unhealthy.
A few months ago, many of us thought COVID-19 was something that would never affect us personally. I mean, thefor Coronavirus was only 3 minutes long! How could a virus with a video that short come to affect us? Many of us held to this false mindset initially, going about life as usual, with no sense that this virus would grow to be anything more than a small outbreak.
Then the virus made its way to the US, the number of cases and death continued to grow, and we went into a nationwide lockdown. I initially didn’t want to believe it, but I was quickly forced to face reality. Society was undergoing unprecedented changes, and so too was my life as a medical student. Prometric announced closures of all testing centers, students were removed from in person rotations, and people were dying from this disease. Suddenly, the future that I had crafted was in flux, and a flurry of questions started flowing through my head: Would I be able to take Step 1 before I began my rotations? How will this affect my career going forward? What will happen to my friends and family members? My anxiety was overwhelming, and I found myself paralzyed and unsure of how to proceed. I quickly realized that my mental health was taking a turn for the worst, and I needed to do something to get back on track.
That was when I remembered three vital skills that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy taught me: the practice of mindfulness, of controlled breathing, and of thought labelling and analysis. In my busy life in medical school, I had forgotten about these vital techniques that proved so effective in managing my anxiety in the past. By implementing these techniques back into my life, I have been able to get a handle on my anxiety once again, even in these fearful and uncertain times, and I believe that they are useful tools for anyone to combat the anxiety stress we are all experiencing currently.
- Mindfulness: Set aside a few minutes each day, away from distractions, to simply sit comfortably and notice the thoughts coming into your mind in the present moment. Make a point to notice these thoughts without assigning judgment to them and to focus on what you are feeling in the present. If your mind starts to wander, gently nudge it back to the present moment, again, without judging yourself, trying to always focus on the here and now.
- Controlled Breathing: If you are experiencing some of the physical manifestations of anxiety, try breathing in deeply to the count of three at a comfortable pace, and then exhaling to the count of three, while silently saying the word “relax” to yourself. Try to focus entirely on your breath over a full breath cycle, following the air as it enters through your nose, into your lungs, and back up out of your mouth. After a few breath cycles, you will hopefully notice your pulse slowing and these physical symptoms lessening. There are also many videos and apps that can help guide you through this practice that are great if you would like some outside assistance!
- Though Labelling and Analysis: If you find yourself with many thoughts provoking feelings of anxiety, try to write these thoughts down on paper. Try analyzing these thoughts to see if they are realistic or if there are any logical fallacies. Is the thought assuming the absolute worst outcome? Are you thinking in complete black and white terms? Are there any patterns to the fallacies in these thoughts that you are making? By analyzing our thoughts, we are able to regain power over them and decide for ourselves whether to believe these thoughts and allow them to affect us.
I encourage anyone currently struggling with anxiety and stress in these times to take some time each day and try any of these techniques. There are several free resources online that offer further guidance on these core skills of CBT as well as several free apps if you are interested in learning more! Most importantly, take care of yourselves during these uncertain times. We will get through this together!
Keck School of Medicine of USC