Cedars-Sinai Blog

How to Handle Anxiety and Recognize If It's a Problem

Humans like to feel in control and aren't built to deal with large amounts of uncertainty, says Dr. Megan Auster-Rosen, a clinical psychologist at Cedars-Sinai

During times of limbo, such as a pandemic like COVID-19 (coronavirus) or other major life events, it's hard for many people not to be worried. 

"It's sort of like we're trying to do all the things we normally would do while dragging a huge sack of bricks behind us."

Fear under these conditions is completely normal, she says, so don't rush to label anxiety as unhealthy or a lasting problem. Here are some things you can do to manage worries and determine if you need to seek medical care. 

Meet your basic needs

Make sure you're sleeping and eating regularly and staying hydrated, so you're better equipped to handle challenges.

Routine is one of the first things we lose during a chaotic or stressful time. 

"Everything else feels more important," Dr. Auster-Rosen says. "But the truth is, without those basic needs being met, we actually can't do anything else." 


Be gentle with yourself

A major life event or crisis is not the time to set a high standard of productivity or a new goal for yourself. Instead, you should be forgiving if you find you can't be as high-functioning or creative as usual.

Dr. Auster-Rosen suggests allowing yourself breaks, especially if you're feeling overwhelmed.  

"It's sort of like we're trying to do all the things we normally would do while dragging a huge sack of bricks behind us," she says. "We're not going to be able to go as fast, not going to be able to do as much and it's going to take more effort."

Engage in daily self-care

Build in time for self-care every day, even if it's just for five or 10 minutes. Try exercising and meditation.

Self-care could also mean journaling, walking, taking a warm shower or something as simple as listening to your favorite song. Just make it consistent and intentional, says Dr. Auster-Rosen.

Recognize anxiety for what it is

Anxiety can show up in lots of different ways, including panic attacks, heart racing, shortness of breath, sweating, stomach aches, trouble focusing and fatigue. 

"It's our fight or flight response gone haywire," Dr. Auster-Rosen says.

Focusing on your breath when you feel yourself getting anxious can help to ground you, she adds. She points out that coping skills aren't solving our discomfort. 

"We are just showing ourselves that we can handle it," she says.

Stay connected

Connections strengthen people's ability to cope and get through a crisis, while isolating can have the opposite effect on mental health. Don't withdraw from your community, Dr. Auster-Rosen stresses.

This is especially hard during the COVID-19 pandemic because physical distancing keeps people alone.

Use video communications and schedule virtual dinners or meet-ups with friends or family. Similarly, try to schedule virtual work meetings to stay connected to colleagues. 

Limit media exposure

Try checking the news just once in the morning and once in the evening (and stop watching at least an hour before bedtime). You'll learn everything you need to know and build in time to process it, without making your anxiety worse.

Know when to seek extra help

If you find yourself still experiencing symptoms after things return to normal in your life, you might be dealing with an anxiety disorder. Watch out for the frequency of panic attacks, constant fears of the worst-case scenario and if anxiety is getting in the way of your ability to do daily tasks or feel connected to your loved ones.

There is help available. Your primary care provider can refer you to a therapist as well as a psychiatrist, who can discuss medication options with you.

She notes that medicine doesn't have to be forever—it could just help get you well enough to use other coping skills during difficult times. 

"It's going to be uncomfortable," Dr. Auster-Rosen says. "Cut yourself a break."