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Wednesday, April 08, 2020
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What? Nothing? Are you serious? “Ever since this COVID-19 earthquake hit, I’ve been a nervous wreck,” said a client in a first session, by phone of course. So, I’ll ask again, as I asked this new client, riddled with anxiety, “What’s the COVID-19 got to do with what you’re feeling?” And so began his transformative journey to calm, peace and tranquility in the face of a cornucopia of life upending matters related to COVID-19.

I’ll explain. But first some basics on anxiety. I’m not referring to concern, but to full blown anxiety.

Anxiety is a mental illness that affects a bit more than 18% of the population every year. An estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. There are nine specific types of anxiety, according to the latest diagnostic manual that psychiatrists and those who treat mental disorders rely upon. Anxiety leaves a person feeling intense, persistent excessive fear and worry about everyday life situations including overwhelming life-stopping panic. Understandably, feelings with such seemingly uncontrollable intensity may interfere with everyday life. Indeed, sweating, trembling, an impending sense of doom, trouble sleeping, gastrointestinal upset, feeling restless and tense, avoiding anxiety triggers and feeling anxious about feeling anxious sometimes described as “fear of fear,” may certainly halt life. While it may be wise to consult your physician if you experience these symptoms, and certainly if you believe your anxiety could be related to a physical health problem, let’s go beyond that.

Surely, during this opportune time…wait, did I just call this cataclysmic upheaval of life without toilet paper, “opportune?” Yes. Read onward.

You see, every situation in life is an opportunity. Now it takes 2020 vision (yes, I get it, do you?) to see life through that lens. But when you do, you are transformed and live life better, some might say, optimally. And when you do, you will understand that nothing, not the COVID-19 apocalypse we are facing, not the economy, not the president, not the media’s “If it bleeds, it leads” reporting, not the kids home 24-7, no, nothing “makes you,” or “gets you,” anxious, worried, upset, sad, or even happy…but your thinking.

People are infected by disease, not disturbed by disease. People disturb themselves by their rigid and extreme views about disease, and anything and everything else.

If you are experiencing increased anxiety during this time of elevated risk of COVID-19, here are some healthier ways of disturbing yourself less, living happier, more fulfilled and not sweating the virus stuff.

Notice how everyone is an epidemiologist lately? Listen to the news and it’s enough to leave many under their covers, not getting out of bed for the next several weeks. But re-read my sentence above…it’s worth repeating.

People are infected by disease, not disturbed by disease. People disturb themselves by their rigid and extreme views about disease.

We create our unhealthy negative emotions by carrying a number of irrational beliefs:

Demands – musts, oughts, absolute should, have to’s

Awfulizing beliefs – “It’s terrible,” “It’s awful,” “It’s the end of the world”

Low frustration tolerance (LFT) – “I can’t stand it,” “It’s intolerable,” “I can’t bear it”

Personalization – “I’m no good if I get infected,” “Life’s no good”

Overgeneralizing – “It’s always going to be this way,” “It’ll never get better”

Ask yourself if you’d rather feel concerned or anxious? Sad or depressed? Annoyed or rageful?

Once you’ve caught your negative emotion, look for the irrational belief that created it. Ask yourself, “What am I thinking that makes me feel this way?” Not, “Why am I feeling this way,” but “What thoughts do I have that make me feel this way?”

Now, it’s time to learn how to practically dispute, challenge and question erroneous, irrational, self-disturbing beliefs that fill you with negative emotions, anxiety and halt life.

Begin by asking yourself questions such as, “Is this thought or belief getting me anywhere positive or is it detrimental?” “Does thinking this help me in any way?” “Is what I’m thinking helping me build better relationships with people?” If your thoughts lead you to fear, excessive worry, or anxiety it’s clear your thinking isn’t helping you.

Then ask yourself, “Do I have any evidence, proof, to support this negative belief?” “Is this a logical thought?”

When you think about what you tell yourself, for example, “This will never get better,” you might see that it already is getting better in some ways.

The aim is to distinguish realistic from dysfunctional thinking. This requires that you slow your thinking down enough to mindfully look at your thinking.

Healthier thinking includes preferences, anti-awfulizing, high frustration tolerance, and anti-self-other-life-downing.

Replace your demands with preferences. “It’d sure be better not to become infected with COVID-19, but who says I ‘must’ or ‘should’ not?” Wish for it, want it badly, bur free yourself of demanding it be different.

Replace your awfulizing thoughts with less extreme beliefs. “It’s not horrible, awful or catastrophic, it’s really just not good.” This situation we are in is very bad, but it’s not 100% awful. Separate very bad from more than that.

Replace your LFT with high frustration tolerance (HFT). “While I don’t like it and sure wish this disease wasn’t floating around, upending everyone’s life, I can certainly tolerate and bear it.” You can stand a great deal more than you may give yourself credit for.

Eliminate your negative self-other-life downing. “While COVID-19 is not good, life surely still has lots of good in it, as do I.” “I’m a good person even if I sometimes make myself frustrated with being quarantined.” See the good in others and the opportunities for a mini-vacation, a change in thinking, picking up a new interest, while quarantined.

Shrink your overgeneralizing to more evidence-based thinking. “I have no idea if it’ll always be this way, and in fact, it’s very likely not going to last forever. But even if it most unlikely does, I can handle it though I may not like it.”

Some find that using distracting techniques helpful to take your mind off of your negative thoughts. Listen to calming music or meditation tapes, imagine pleasant places you’ve visited or would like to visit, go for a walk outside.

Once you’ve filled your thinking with healthier thoughts, you’ll feel better, in far greater control, and may find this situation isn’t nearly as horrific as you’ve thought it was.

So, you now see that COVID-19 has nothing to do with your anxiety. Your thinking about COVID-19 is what links it to what you feel. Remember, “The link is what you think.”

Like Alfred E. Neuman liked to say, “What, me worry?” Don’t sweat the virus stuff, be realistic about protecting yourself and your family, co-workers and friends.


Dr. Mantell, earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and is one of the most sought-after behavior science experts in the world. For more than 45 years, he has been helping people find lasting change, contentment and a more awakened life as they move past crippling emotions like anxiety, stress, depression and burnout with his short-term, powerful, compassionate approaches.

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