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To reduce COVID-19 anxiety, keep your distance but stay close, psychiatrist says

To reduce COVID-19 anxiety, keep your distance but stay close, psychiatrist says


A cat lady recently purchased a leash for one of her indoor fur babies and walked him over to visit the neighbors.

Finding they weren’t home — or possibly not answering cat calls — she posted on Facebook a picture of the cat at their door with a caption that said she and Boba Fett were sorry to have missed them.

That picture showed up Monday morning as one of hundreds in comments to a post by the Roanoke Valley SPCA. Usually, the animal rescue group uses the post to let folks know what happened with their Friday featured pet.

Instead, the RVSPCA wrote, “We want to encourage people to post goofy pictures of their pets and maybe for a brief moment we can smile, laugh, or just relax our minds for a little bit.”

Some of the pictures are rolling-on-the-floor, pee-your-pants funny.

And that is exactly what the psychiatrist ordered.

Dr. Bob Trestman, chair of Carilion Clinic’s psychiatry department, said social media offers a way to stay close to people during this unprecedented time of social distancing and, paradoxically, can bring a community closer.

“All of us can feel very disempowered as far as stress. All of us can use this as an opportunity to feel connected with our community,” he said. He suggests calling and video chatting with friends and family and connecting with online friends.

“For many people who really rely on Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram or any other social media, if it is something helping you to deal with your anxiety by staying in contact, then I would encourage people to continue to do it,” Trestman said. “If the people you are communicating with are sharing the beneficial ways they are coping, they are spending more time with their pets — look at the trick I just taught my cat — those kind of things can be very beneficial to engage people, to help ground people.”

However, not all posts are fuzzy cuteness, swapping recipes or regrets of not laying in enough Cheetos to get through the weekend, let alone the next few weeks. There’s a dark side to staying connected.

“If it’s more fear-mongering that no matter what you do, the chances are you are going to catch it and die, and there won’t be anything available at the hospital for you, that is something people should avoid,” Trestman said. “I would encourage people to ask themselves the question daily: Am I getting useful information, and am I benefiting emotionally from my social media? If not, turn to something else.”

Something else could be anything that helps reduce stress, isolation and the anxiety of dealing with a pandemic. Walk the dog, garden, run up and down steps for exercise, play board games, read, binge-watch TV, try something new, rediscover something old.

And recognize that feeling anxious is a normal response to processing a new type of risk.

“We are used to the risks of the common cold and the flu and other infectious diseases because we have coped with them incrementally over the last decade. They are predictable,” Trestman said.

For instance, we can get a flu shot to reduce the risk.

“We learned to cope with that. We have learned to accept the fact that there are 20 to 30 or more thousand people in the United States who die from the flu every year. It’s a known quantity,” he said.

The COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus is new.

“We’re hearing mixed messages, and anytime we get mixed messages it makes it even harder to know what to do,” he said. “Sometimes we hear, it’s nothing, just go about your daily business, and the next minute, we are hearing, lock yourself up in your house with a month’s supply of everything you are going to need.”

The reality is this, he said: The virus is real and appears to be more infectious and dangerous than seasonal flu. It’s also fragile and can be destroyed with soap and water.

“If we were to reduce the risk of transmission, we significantly both slow down the spread and can protect those of us who are most vulnerable,” he said.

Last week, many of Virginia’s universities and colleges extended spring break and moved classes online. By Friday, the governor had ordered all public schools to close. Local governments started halting recreational programs and closing libraries.

Throughout the weekend, the list of canceled events widened and included church services and movie screenings. As some people began to stay home, others hit the gyms, shopped and dined out.

While the count of confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 rose to 52 in Virginia, and with the disease having claimed two lives so far, no cases had been reported in Southwest Virginia as of Monday afternoon.

Watching as the disease spreads raises anxiety levels. Making preparations can give people a sense of control, Trestman said.

Stocking up on canned goods, medication and, yes, toilet paper help some people deal with stress and are reasonable responses.

Canceling travel, even across town, can help to both slow the spread of the virus and lessen anxiety, he said.

A big anxiety reducer: connecting with people.

“The risk of social isolation is very real. The benefit of the technology we have is we can use this as an opportunity to really stay in touch using our smart phones to see each others’ faces, to talk directly with each other, and to ask for help, and to be comfortable saying, ‘I’m running short of certain foods, do you have anything you can share with me?’ ” he said.

He said it is especially important to reach out to elderly neighbors and relatives who live alone. Call them, drop off care packages, and find creative ways to stay in touch.

Trestman thinks finding ways to keep physical distance but social closeness will help reduce stress, loneliness and depression.

“We are stuck at home and not able to go to parties, concerts and other events. But as a community each of us is committed to caring for each other, and the way we can consciously demonstrate care for each other and feel proud about that is by being more socially distant but utilizing technology in a way to support each other,” he said. “So I think if we can find that positive element in this and help people feel good about what they are doing as part of community. This is a community effort. We can all pull together and feel proud about doing that.”

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