Worrying and Waiting During Covid

WORRIED WAITING has moved up on everyone’s list of serious stressors. The wait for upcoming election results has become a wait for the January 20 inauguration. The wait for vaccine development has become one for approval and availability—with the latter projected for anywhere from six weeks to ten months from now.

And for anyone with symptoms or who has been in contact with possible cases, there’s the wait to get a test, an increasingly long wait for results and the wait of 14 days in total quarantine.

Meanwhile, last week’s head-snapping coronavirus news veered between terrific—vaccine makers publicizing hopeful study results—and terrible: the nation’s hospitals overrun; Covid cases up more than 70%; and deaths up more than 50%, with someone dying every hour, at least.

For anyone unpersuaded by Covid’s myriad threats of infection, chronic illness or death, the stress of worried waiting caused by random encounters that risk contagion should convince them and everyone else to maintain the strictest precautions possible—not only wearing masks but hand-washing and social-distancing as well.

(In a recent Danish study, even those wearing masks got sick. Although the study failed to account for many variables, such as what kind of mask and how well participants wore them, the few infections among mask wearers indicated the crucial need to employ every protective measure available.)

On skyrocketing stress, the 2020 rates are impressive. A CDC report in August found anxiety symptoms had tripled and depression quadrupled among more than 5,000 adults compared with a 2019 sample. In addition, two surveys by researchers at Boston University and Johns Hopkins conducted in April found anxiety symptoms had tripled from 2018 measurements.

Even compared to “other large-scale traumas like September 11, Hurricane Katrina and the Hong Kong unrest,” the rates found this past April were higher, Boston University Public Health researcher Catherine Ettman told Scientific American’s Claudia Wallis.

Increased engagement with media coverage—especially exposure to conflicting information—was a major cause of anxiety, according to UC Irvine psychologist Roxane Cohen Silver, who studied the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing as well as of 9/11. Said Silver, “If people are engaged with a great deal of media, they are more likely to exhibit and report distress, but that distress seems to draw them further into the media.”

Maintaining social contacts, a common recommendation for minimizing stress during times of trauma, has been difficult during the pandemic.  Said University of Texas at Austin psychologist James Pennebaker, “Unlike any other disaster that I’ve studied, people are actively less close to friends and community.”

Among quick-break strategies to counter stress, “self-interruption” can take just a few minutes—of jumping jacks, wall push-ups, dancing—anything that involves changing position and moving. “Any time you move your muscles and get your heart rate up, you’ll get a boost in dopamine and sense yourself as alive and engaged,” Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal told the New York Times.

McGonigal also suggested finding ways to “imagine a positive future,” which can include getting rid of clutter, making a scrapbook, hanging artwork and choosing a new comforter. In fact shopping for anything (these days online) can offer not just a break from stress but a symbol of hope and planning for the future—even when no purchase is made.

For longer breaks, lavender baths can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “Even antidepressants work better when combined with lavender,” writes Tara Parker-Pope, noting research that suggests “lavender reaches odor-sensitive neurons in the nose that send signals to the parts of the brain related to wakefulness and awareness.”

Activating the senses can change the biological and chemical response, which reduces intense emotions, in the experience of New York City psychotherapist Alyssa Mairanz who recommends baths that are “very hot.” Among sensory stimuli, she suggests splashing cold water on your face, eating something very salty or sour, or clenching various parts of your body, like your fist, for a few seconds and then release.

Self-compassion can also help.  Place your hand over your heart or stomach, or cup your face; acknowledge the stressful situation by saying “this is a moment of suffering;” say something soothing like, “may I be peaceful” are suggestions from “self-compassion” researcher and University of Texas, Austin psychologist Kristin Neff.

Finally, “one good way to deal with anxiety-ridden waiting” is the awe experience, according to research from the UC Riverside “Life Events” lab.  In studies on 729 undergraduates, psychologist Katharine Sweeny said: “All it took was a high-definition sunset set to an instrumental score.” Compared to meditation, which helped law students manage anxiety in an earlier study by Sweeny, she said, “awe helps cloak it.”

But stress reducers can be very personal: while lavender soothes some, others can’t bear the smell; and the knitting that helps some makes others grind their teeth. While some relax by playing competitive Text-Twist, others prefer walking in the park with a friend.  And some people do better on a strict routine interspersed with treats, while others can both relax and get more accomplished by doing various tasks only when they feel up to them.

My own fallback de-stressors failed to provide relief when someone with whom I’d had brief, masked contact developed short-lived, mild symptoms, and my doctor’s office said I must quarantine and get tested—and scheduling the test took days.

What worked well for relaxing then was a Zoom class in Feldenkrais—movement therapy that requires focusing on different body parts: if your attention wavers, you get behind, finding yourself on your back while everyone else has turned over. That motivated me to keep my mind from wandering back to worries—better than my usual MBSR attention on following the breath in and out—for which I had now become too easily distracted.

In search of awe, I took an unusual midday break outdoors in the sunshine; and, for later, moved a film about Antarctica to the top of my Netflix list. For distraction, Casey Cep’s book Furious Hours created a true-crime anthropological foray into 1970s Alabama, a world that now seemed more aberrant than 2020.

For self-interrupters, salty pretzels worked well, along with sugary afternoon quarant-tea—while others do better with the cocktail-hour quaran-tini. But for frequent breaks, the best for me is cold water on the face, the icier the better.

—Mary Carpenter

Well-Being Editor Mary Carpenter keeps us updated on Covid-19. To read more of her posts, click here.


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