Coping with the coronavirus pandemic for people with anxiety disorders

John Sharp, MD


These days, we all have to accept the anxiety inherent in living in the time of the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19. If there was a way to dispel all anxious feelings, I’d tell you, but there isn’t. The one exception might be someone who could summon such a degree of denial that they carry on as if everything was normal. And that, as I’m sure you can see, would prove to be very, very unwise.

Anxiety helps us prepare to respond in a more adaptive and healthy way. Some people find it possible to tolerate some degree of discomfort and can manage their anxiety in a healthy manner. Often that’s because some people have done well under this kind of challenge already, albeit in very different contexts. Life has a way of requiring this. Yet other people — particularly people who have anxiety disorders — may understandably be having a great deal of trouble coping.

How can I cope with the coronavirus outbreak if I have a pre-existing anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorders take many forms and affect many people. So, what happens now if you’re someone who has suffered way too much already with a pre-existing anxiety disorder? For example, perhaps you have been, or could be, diagnosed with panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Hopefully, you may find that the tips below will help you cope more successfully with what we are all facing together in these unprecedented times.

Seek support from a mental health professional

Talking to a mental health professional can bolster your ability to address present concerns, and help you clarify where your feelings are coming from, as explained below. When you’re feeling extra worried or overwhelmed, it could be that some of your feelings are from the present challenge and some are from challenges you have faced in the past.

Many psychotherapists and health plans are offering telehealth visits during this time. Ask your therapist or insurance plan if this is an option. More therapists than ever before are moving their practices online. If you search for therapists in your area, their websites may tell you whether they participate in telehealth. Additionally, some national telehealth apps offer therapy via video or audio chat.

Work toward separating out where your feelings are coming from

Doing this work can allow you to take a breath and divvy up the different emotional contributions that feed how you’re feeling.

  • Try saying this, for example: “Of course, I’m more concerned than (my roommate/my friend/my family), because I’m practiced at feeling anxious or helpless.”
  • The next step is to recognize that the percentage of feelings that stem from the past do not have to govern how you necessarily feel in the present. Try saying this out loud: “Well that was then, this is now.” A simple statement like this can actually open the door to some significant relief.
  • Gently remind yourself of this crucial separation, cleaving the past from the present. And kindly and reassuringly remind yourself that you have the resources — both internal and external — to manage your feelings and reactions in the now. This is crucially important.

Keep providing yourself with guidance

As often as you need to hear it, tell yourself the following: “I can manage. I can practice what I know to be helpful, and I know that in managing my feelings and reactions I can seek support from a few close friends. Further, I can seek the support of a mental health professional when needed. By combining these strategies, I will be able to settle my nerves in order to be able to make healthy choices.”

This kind of mantra bears repeating over and over. This is not “fake it till you make it.” This is believing in yourself and believing in a course of action that you can set in motion. Try to believe that, together with supportive others, this self-guidance and this plan will work for you. Know that in many instances, people who have known tremendous adversity and even trauma are able to demonstrate a strength forged from those circumstances. This is entirely consistent with human abilities.

Drawing on what you’ve learned can help you cope

We are wired for fight or flight. But as a colleague of mine noted, the present situation does not require either of these. If you’re a human who’s been challenged, or somewhat disabled, by anxiety in the past, I encourage you now to draw upon what you’ve learned in terms of how you can manage successfully.

Separating out feelings from the past, reminding yourself that you have the strength and ability in the present to prevail, seeing a path forward for yourself and setting yourself upon that path is the way forward. If along that way you should stumble and fall, picture yourself as able to pick yourself back up and carry on. Reassure yourself that the basic provisions for your safety and well-being are within your power to meet. In my book, every day that you are able to do so, counts as a very good day indeed.

Related Information: Anxiety and Stress Disorders


  1. Evelyn Dance

    I have anxiety all the time and I note that this Corona virus is just another day for me. I see my family and other with anxiety but that is so normal for me. Because I take medication I do not feel the way I see them suffering. I hope after this time people may realize that the way they feel for a short time is the way a lot of people with anxiety feels everyday. The world is right about feeling anxiety right now. I hope we all learn to be a better person after this corona virus. I hope they understand the people that suffer from anxiety because it is a very hard debilitating disease.

  2. Dr Syed Naveed shah

    I learn alot from the abouve article regarding the coping with stress of corona virus .

  3. Michael

    I’m getting much better during the day but always wake up in the morning with anxiety exhibited by stomach and Abdominal pains……if I can Alleviate that, I’d be able to get a better start to each day. Thank you!

  4. Holly Sharp

    I just wanted to say that being on your own side during these times is very important. I can “practice” believing that everything bad is going to happen; (most of what I dread has already happened). I call also willing “practice” believing that all the good things I can imagine are going to come true. That is the wonderful part of this life – we can truly believe whatever we want – and it’s what we all have in common – not the substance of what we believe but the nature of us as people is that we “believe” in something – and whatever you focus on is usually where your emotions go. If you can come against worry by practicing focusing on what you want or need instead of what you are afraid of and try to realize so far a great deal of us are well – warm and safe and dry and healthy. As we can actually “believe” either way we might as well be on our own sides. Instead of reeling in all my fears I can deliberately fish for the good possibilities. You never know what good things the tide is going to bring in. <3

  5. Jackie smith

    How do you cope with the anxiety if you have to go to work it’s bad enough in isolation but havi g to go out to a school setting g where social distancing is nearly impossible is just crippling.

  6. Angel

    In the midst of recognizing and finally verbalizing my fears to a Dr. This pandemic broke out. A Constant fear of death. Waking to attacks, fear of traveling in cars for relatively short distances. Getting a sore throat and my mind goes on it’s own to cancer. These things were driving me insane before the pandemic broke out and just started taking buspar and paxil for treatment. It is an exhausting and invisible debilitating disease. Hard to explain to family and work. So thankful I finally reached out for help before this all happened. Thank you for recognizing that this is a real problem for many people.
    To Japps, reach out for help and treatment. I dont like taking medication. I cant imagine how I would be able to cope with this crisis without it. Good luck and be safe!!

  7. Rachel

    I have a panic disorder and my anxiety during this period is debilitating. Last week I had to file for unemployment so now I just sit at home all day worrying even more. This article brought me some of the relief I was looking for. The statement, “Well that was then, this is now,” is going to be of great use to me as well.

  8. Japs Hatta

    Thanks for this post, Dr. Sharp. Indeed, these are trying times for people with pre-existing ailments and more so for those who have been previously diagnosed with GAD, agoraphobia and panic disorder. Prior to our enhanced community quarantine aka “lockdown” here in Manila (Philippines), I was already able to bring down the number of episodes of panic to 1x a month without medication. We are now in our 3rd week of lockdown and during the entire 2nd week my episodes came every day, with as much as 5 episodes in one day. Will take your advise.

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