NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The worldwide response surrounding the coronavirus is changing rapidly. As schools, athletic events and even amusement parks shut down, mental health experts say it's normal to be anxious about what lies ahead, especially as the stock market takes a tumble. Not only that, but middle Tennessee is in the middle of a massive cleanup following this month's tornado outbreak.
If you find yourself stressing about the state of the world these days, Nashville-based mental health therapist Cris Cannon offers this advice to keep things in control and in perspective:
1) Understand what is in your control and what isn't
Cannon says he's seen about 60 clients since the tornadoes hit last Tuesday, the stock market tumbled and concern over COVID-19 ramped up.
"Basically the largest issue is, 'My life is out of control right now'," Cannon said. "It's, 'Things I thought I had in good control, are not.'"
Cannon says when people feel out of control, they often resort to different methods in an attempt to regain some of that control. He says that's what is driving the run on toilet paper in stores across the country, even though no government agency has said people should stock up on it.
"All the things people are buying now in large quantities helps them for the moment," Cannon said. "But after they've bought it, they haven't dealt with the reality of owning their anxiety and dealing with it by finding some outlets that are helpful for them."
Cannon says much of the stress and anxiety we may feel surrounding the coronavirus comes from elements we have no control over. He says when we realize we can't control certain aspects of our lives, that has the potential to create even more anxiety. It creates what Cannon calls "what-if" thinking that can often spiral out of control.
This illustrates a common "what-if" spiral:
What if I get the coronavirus?
What if I lose my job?
What if I can't make my house payment?
"That spirals away from anything we can control," Cannon said. "If you get to that point, you should stop yourself.
"Say, 'Wait a minute. My thinking is getting out of hand here, so I'm going to say, STOP.'"
In that moment, Cannon says it's important to think of what you can control.
"I can control washing my hands and singing happy birthday, I can control staying away from crowds," Cannon said. That's the advice given by the Centers for Disease Control.
"The more I'm focusing on what I can control to take care of myself, that eases my anxiety," Cannon said. "The more I'm focusing on these larger issues, for which there is no answer, that only ramps it up."
2) Write down on paper the things you can control
Cannon admits having the mindfulness to recognize when your thoughts get out of control is a skill that takes time to develop. So Cannon suggests taking a piece of paper and writing down the things in your life you can control right now.
"That becomes a written record of things you can do for yourself," Cannon said.
3) Do something good for yourself
Cannon suggests after focusing on what you can control, you can boost your spirits - and your endorphin levels - by taking a 30-minute walk without listening to anything. You can also spend that time reading a good book or watching a movie. Cannon says that helps your brain focus on something positive.
"After you've done everything you can to control this moment, you can say, 'I'm going to take my mind and do something else with it.' That's perfectly alright to do," Cannon said.
4) Talk to friends and family, but limit the discussion
Cannon says it's important to express your fears and worries with a trusted friend or family member, and then allow them to do the same thing.
"It feels so good to have talked it out," Cannon said.
But Cannon says after acknowledging each other's concerns, it's equally important to cut off the conversation before it devolves into another spiral of "what-if" thinking.
5) Watch how much time you spend watching TV or browsing social media
Cannon says it's important to stay informed on developments surrounding the coronavirus, but make sure the process doesn't end up triggering your anxiety.
"After reading the information, if you find yourself reading another story, and you want to see another picture, and all of a sudden you see you've been doing this for two hours, that means you've gone just a little too far," Cannon said. "A lot of times I tell my clients to go online, look at the TV, get your information, spend 30 minutes, and then cut it off."
Cannon says you can do that process several times a day, but always impose a time limit beforehand.
He says the comment sections on social media can be particularly harmful.
"What starts as an honest attempt to talk about your feelings, follows with other people starting to put in their two cents worth," Cannon said. "Then, 10-12 posts down, this has devolved into an argument: they're upset with each other, they're questioning each other's postings."
Cannon says at that point, the comments no longer deal with the original purpose of dealing with anxiety. He says pay attention to your emotions while on social media. If you realize you have emotions that get stirred up other than what you're already feeling, it may be time to back off.
6) Create a "Gratitude List"
While fears about the coronavirus, the stock market and the recent tornadoes can weigh you down, Cannon says it's important to balance that out with the good in your life.
Cannon says you should keep a "gratitude list" of everything you're grateful for - be it certain friends or family - whatever you want to jot down.
"If we are so worried about what's bad about life, we forget the things that are good," Cannon said. "Everyday, try to add a few things to your list; it brings our life into greater balance."
That balance, Cannon says, is what we risk losing if we let fear and anxiety take over.
"If we get lost in that, we forget the meaning of our friends, we forget the meaning of our families, we forget there may be an older person down the street we need to go check on," he said.
After all, Cannon says, it's the people in our lives that should always remain front and center.
"Whatever the national crisis is," Cannon said, "we always have to be here for each other."