30 April 2020

How to deal with anxiety and worries in corona times


For many students suffering from anxiety, the corona crisis is of great significance. But as a student there are many things you can do to subdue and contain your anxiety.

Sonja Breinholst
Sonja Breinholst is assistant professor and head of the Centre for Anxiety at the University of Copenhagen.​

“International research shows that about 20 percent of young adults meet the diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorders by the age of 26. This can well be transferred to a Danish context. There will be about the same proportion of students with anxiety now studying at UCPH,” says Sonja Breinholst.

She is head of the Centre for Anxiety at the Department of Psychology, University of Copenhagen. We talk about how the corona crisis affects UCPH students who suffer anxiety disorders. Statistically, anxiety is a factor of everyday life for about one fifth of the students at UCPH. Anxiety can have a particular impact on students when society is locked down and everyday life is not as it used to be.

“When we look at psychological well-being, it’s clear that the lack of social and physical contact for most students has a negative effect. For example, many of them can’t take up their internships, and in general there is a course-related uncertainty because some of the most basic things have been cancelled or moved,” Sonja Breinholst says.

The situation turned upside down for the socially anxious 

​“When it comes to students with a proper diagnosable anxiety disorder, two particularly interesting groups stand out,” Sonja Breinholst says. A group suffering from generalised anxiety and a group with social anxiety, and especially for the latter, the corona crisis has made everyday life, if not better, then at least easier: 

“If you’re a student with social anxiety, you don’t have to attend lectures or participate in group work. That suits people with social anxiety really well. At the moment, they are experiencing that almost the entire society is adapting to them and not the other way around. They don’t have to be part of or back out of social situations. They have every right to not participate without being stigmatised."

Suddenly the plan is useless 

​For the group suffering from generalised anxiety disorders, the situation is different. For them, the corona crisis can seem overwhelming because it affects our lives and plans so much. Especially if you are also an ambitious student, according to Sonja Breinholst:

“People with generalised anxiety, and especially if they are also ambitious, have had the rug pulled out from under them. The plan you made is of no use now. You don't know how the exams are going to take place, and you don't know what will happen next semester. Uncertainty is often at the root of anxiety, and when you suffer from anxiety you often want to be in control because it's a way to contain the anxiety as it reduces the uncertainty. And if there's something you can't control, it's a corona epidemic."

Take it seriously

​According to Sonja Breinholst, there are many things you can do yourself to live with your worries and anxiety as a student. 

“It’s important to stress that anxiety is a severe disorder that does not go away by itself. You can compare it to a broken leg: If you don't get a plaster cast, you could risk limping for the rest of your life. So if you're worrying so much that it affects your functional level, for example that you can’t tend to your studies, your family and you’re not sleeping properly, it can signal that you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder to an extent where you need to seek professional help. But there’s much you can do yourself for starters – to see if it helps," Sonja Breinhols says.

You can start by minimising the news flow. Don't follow the news. Shut down and minimise input – especially around bedtime. 

Sonja Breinholst

Set aside 'time for worrying'

​“You can start by minimising the news flow. Don't follow the news. Shut down and minimise input – especially around bedtime. Another thing you can do is allowing yourself ‘time for worrying'. Set aside time for some real worrying. Perhaps half an hour after lunch. If you have thoughts or worries during the day, write them down on a Post-It note and take them out for your worrying time. Often you will find that what worried you in the morning has disappeared or changed character in the afternoon.” 

Google can fuel your anxiety

​We all tend to seek information on what we are concerned about. It can be on Google or when we constantly ask family and friends for advice on the same things over and over. It’s also a good idea to minimise that sort of input, Sonja Breinholst explains:

“Confirmation and rejection of your concerns fuel your anxiety and keep it alive by constantly generating new questions. The risk is that it will snowball into a full avalanche. But you can seek to challenge your anxious thoughts,” Sonja Breinholst says and elaborates:

“Are your worries realistic at all? Will you end up drinking beer on a park bench if the exam doesn't go quite as planned? Here it may help to try to prove it to yourself. Can you prove that it’s actually going to be as you fear? Is there a logic to it? Often you will find that the answer is ‘no’. It may be useful to get a fellow student or family member to help challenge the ‘logic’ of your anxiety.​