The line between reasonable and unreasonable anxiety is subjective even in normal times, and we are in weird times. Most Australians are experiencing a small level of fear, and a few of us are experiencing a lot. It’s really not for us to say if that is reasonable. But it is on us to help each other, if we can.

Six steps how you can help a colleague or employee who is feeling highly anxious about coronavirus:

  1. Detecting anxiety in yourself and others
  2. Helping others with anxiety
  3. Helping with a panic attack
  4. The risk of using facts
  5. Thinking about longer-term anxiety issues
  6. How to stop anxiety spreading

1. Detecting anxiety in yourself and others
You want people in your workplace to feel safe. If they’re feeling anxious, you want them to come forward. The best detection method is encouraging people to be self-aware. Questions that people can ask themselves:

  • Am I feeling a bit overwhelmed?
  • Am I constantly checking the headlines and looking for updates?
  • Am I ruminating so much on coronavirus that I’m not focusing at work?
  • Am I able to hear objective facts or am I focusing on fears and potential scenarios?

If people are washing their hands and wiping down surfaces, that could be appropriate given the circumstances. But doing things that go beyond the advice of any respected authority might be a sign the anxiety is becoming too much and you should reach out.

Often when people are anxious and they’re not expressing it, whether that’s something to do with fears or their personal life, they will have strong reactions to other things that make them angry, frustrated or annoyed that seem somewhat disproportionate. When people are reactive above and beyond what you would ordinarily expect, that’s a sign that they’re not coping.

2. Helping others with anxiety
If you believe someone is anxious this six-step process can help guide how you approach and talk to them. It applies to individuals but could also be used as the framework for wider organisational messaging.

i. Recognition
Let the person know that you’ve noticed they seem to be behaving in a certain way and clarify this is okay. Recognise the wider coronavirus concerns and nationwide stress. Validating the person’s emotions is a key step. Even if you can’t comprehend why someone else would be so worried, take their feelings at face value.

ii. Understanding
If someone confirms they’re feeling anxious, show them understanding. People have different experiences – for example, someone who cares for an ageing parent is likely feeling more concerned about the virus – so show them you see where they’re coming from.

iii. Compassion
Compassion is showing that human kindness of, ‘I actually do care, I can see that you’re suffering, we want to be able to help with that.’”

iv. Offering support
This is when you begin to become more action minded. Let them know they can talk to people and that the organisation wants to be there for them. For example, remind them to access EAP Assist. Also ask the person if they have ideas for what might help them feel better.

v. Suggestions
It’s worthwhile going beyond support and offering other suggestions that people can hang onto, that are grounded and tangible. A suggestion can be encouraging people to check-in with themselves for the signs listed above, pointing them to worthwhile online resources, or to reach out to their families, independent professionals and so on.

vi. When to ask for help?
This is offering future advice and something of an ongoing framework. The anxious person perhaps now has a plan based on your suggestions, but here is where you tell them what to look for in themselves going forward. Let them know it’s okay to ask for support and that you will check back in with them.

3. Helping with a panic attack
Sometimes anxiety escalates into a panic attack. This is serious. Panic attacks aren’t always caused by dire situations. They can be instigated by fears of coronavirus but can also be caused by something as small as a negative judgement from a superior.

It doesn’t matter what the content of the worry is, the brain is responding to it as if it were a tiger – something they need to fight or run away from.
Your goal is to de-escalate their mind from a state of primal fear – fight or flight – and back into a more measured way of thinking. You want to engage other parts of the brain so their body stops pumping itself with adrenaline.
A few practical techniques include:

  • Give them out-of-order number sequences such as 7, 8, 11, 15, 21, 2, 7, 10 and ask them to repeat them.
  • Play the alphabet game. Pick a topic such as ‘animals’ and take it in turns to name a different thing in that topic with each letter of the alphabet – so “antelope”, “bear”, “cow” and so on.
  • Try sensory redirection. Give the panicking person a drink, give them a stress toy or object and say “feel that, focus on what the texture feels like”.

Unfortunately, what doesn’t tend to work is telling people to breathe normally or calm down. They want to breathe normally, they want to calm down, but they can’t.

Of course, if things keep escalating and the above techniques don’t work, call in someone else. Don’t crowd the person, as that might exacerbate the problem, but find someone with more authority, ability or training to help. In dire circumstances, you should call an ambulance.

4. The risk of using facts
Some people might believe the trick to calming someone who is experiencing anxiety about coronavirus is to use facts. The problem here is that anxiety often leads to vigilance and hyper-vigilance. An anxious person is likely to know more about coronavirus than you do – they’ve been feeding their growing fear on a diet of live blogs and catastrophic headlines.

You shouldn’t engage on a fact-based level unless you are very confident in the facts: Focus on the emotions and encourage them to seek out very authentic sources.

5. Long-term anxiety issues?
For some, coronavirus will be the root cause of their anxiety. Their troubles are reactive. But others are living with longer-term anxiety issues.

If a person has been more predisposed to experiencing anxiety, and it just so happens that the current context we’re experiencing is proving hard, take comfort and hope in the knowledge that anxiety can be turned around quickly with the right evidence-based strategies.

6. How to stop anxiety spreading
An anxious person doesn’t always keep their anxiety to themselves. Often they feel the need to express it and the act of this can make other people anxious. This can involve simple office chats, where someone regales a colleague with all the worst coronavirus stories from around the world.

But a lot of organisations have formal and informal ways for employees to connect digitally. The company messaging app (think Slack) or social media platform can become a forum for an anxious person to make others anxious, which can be accomplished with something as simple as a news link and the message “we need to all quarantine now”.

The best way to contain this is to get ahead of it. Encourage workers to share their worries with leadership first. If they see a news link they think is relevant to others, get them to hand it to their manager who can vet the article for appropriateness.

Be explicit that you are creating a channel for people to air their concerns as a responsible step you are taking to avoid unnecessary anxiety.

If the cat is already out of the bag and someone has already begun deluging your digital channels, you should confront them respectfully. Try the following approach:

  • Let them know you’ve seen the posts, and that they seem highly anxious.
  • Say you want to make sure they are feeling safe.
  • Say that you want people to share information, but you don’t want undue panic.
  • Ask them if there’s anything the organisation can do to better support them.

The more you make it about them, the more receptive they are going to be. If employees feel they are being supported and encouraged, not criticised and controlled, they are going to respond more cooperatively.

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