How Much Anxiety is Normal During COVID-19?

The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a wave of panic across the nation—and the world. It’s not without reason. As of this writing, COVID-19 has affected the health of millions of people. In the USA alone, it’s claimed the lives of over ten thousand people and the number is rising. Public health officials say the virus is still spreading. While older adults and those with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to its symptoms, everyone is at risk of catching it.

In times like these, you may wonder how much anxiety is normal and how much is not.

We spoke to Elise Guthmann, LMFT, Clinical Program Director at Evolve Ojai Residential Treatment for Teens, to explain the distinction.

Some Anxiety is Good

First, Guthmann clarifies, a measure of basic anxiety is normal right now, and even necessary.

“In order to be safe in the current situation, you need to be somewhat anxious,” says Guthmann. “No anxiety would be a problem right now. People who aren’t the least bit anxious may be endangering themselves, their families or their communities.”

Because it’s anxiety that motivates you to wash your hands when you walk in the door. It’s anxiety that keeps us from hugging our friends. And anxiety also motivates us to adhere to governmental and public health guidelines. A measure of anxiety is necessary in order to protect ourselves and our families during this pandemic. A lack of anxiety might mean you’re not keeping yourself – or your community – safe.

When Anxiety Becomes Debilitating

On the other hand, too much anxiety can become debilitating. “If you or your teen is in a constant state of panic, that’s worrisome. When you become too anxious or emotional, you stop trying to become strategic. Instead, you become hopeless.”

For example, let’s take social distancing. Federal, state, and local mandates have ordered citizens to shelter in place unless they’re going out for essential needs like food, medicine, or the like.

But if your teen struggles with an overwhelming amount of debilitating anxiety, they may be too scared to leave the house at all, even for the noted exceptions. That’s when their anxiety becomes a problem.

“If we’re too afraid to go out at all, or live within the allowances granted, we can also start doing harm to ourselves,” Guthmann says. “Complete isolation and seclusion for weeks on end may lead to or exacerbate mental health issues like major depression. Unless your teen has coronavirus or is under quarantine, staying inside all day every day for months isn’t healthy or safe.”

While our anxiety is there to protect us from harm, balance is key.

As a rule, Guthmann says, “…anxiety is okay until your teen starts hurting themselves or others.”

And yes, anxiety can harm other people.

For example, a teen whose anxiety reaches dangerous levels might engage in obsessive-compulsive behaviors such as hoarding.

“If your teen has bought out the entire stock of hand sanitizer at the store, they’re not leaving any for the rest of the community. And that’s dangerous,” Guthmann says. “At this point, their anxiety might have shifted from the protective range to the concerning range.”

Productive Vs. Paralyzing Anxiety

Another way to figure out whether your teen’s anxiety is normal or concerning is to try and see whether it has become productive or paralyzing.

Whereas reasonable anxiety leads to productivity, catastrophic anxiety becomes debilitating. It can shut a person down.

“If your teen finds herself becoming paralyzed by anxiety, and it’s not helping her to take action but instead keeping her stuck and overwhelmed, that’s when you need to get help,” Guthmann says.

Examples of catastrophic anxiety includes statements like:

  • There’s no way to do this safely
  • I’m hopeless
  • The world is coming to end
  • I can’t survive

Examples of reasonable anxiety includes statements like:

  • I don’t like this new way of doing things
  • It’s hard to live like this.
  • I’m disappointed.
  • There are risks, and I can take safety precautions to minimize those risks.

Of course, everyone has moments of catastrophic anxiety from time to time. But those with debilitating anxiety experience full states of panic all day, every day. If your teen seems chronically anxious to the point that they seem paralyzed by fear, your best option is to enlist the support of mental health professionals or a mental health treatment center

With the help of mental health professionals, your teen can learn how to identify their own catastrophic thoughts and transform them into reasonable ones. For example, during treatment with Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), teens can learn how to reframe a thought like “I’m never going to survive this pandemic,” to “This Is a painful time, and I can take measures to minimize the risks.”

Mental health professionals can also teach your teen ways to channel their anxiety or depression into appropriate, reasonable action instead of distress. The takeaway here is that yes, your teen is perfectly justified to feel some stress and anxiety during COVID-19. It’s healthy and appropriate for all of us. However, when the stress and anxiety become debilitating – and it doesn’t fade – then you can reach out for professional support. Treatment for anxiety works, and the sooner the treatment starts, the better the outcome for everyone involved.