The novel coronavirus is real—and it’s highly contagious. So too is the anxiety Denverites feel this week. Whether or not you’re physically ill, it’s becoming a starker reality every day that this pandemic is impacting everyone.

I was on Colfax Avenue last weekend and talked with a man who goes by the name Good Time Charlie. He was standing out front of a motel where he sometimes stays, smoking a cigarette. He offered a warm smile through his bushy gray beard when I approached. He told me he often eats and drinks from what he finds in trash bins. “But I’m not doing that no more,” he said. “I don’t want to catch nothing.”

Good Time Charlie. Photo by Georgia Perry

That’s the exact sentiment that so many of us are feeling right now.

“[There is] a lot of general unease in the population because we’ve never been in a situation like this before,” says Erin Baurle, president-elect of the Colorado Psychological Association. “It’s impacting the drumbeat of our society, with schools being closed and businesses closing. I think people are grappling with how to restructure their day-to-day life, which is in so many ways the background of what we operate from.”

I spoke with about 10 Denver residents around the city last weekend about how their lives are being upended and the resultant stress it’s causing.

“Music is my life,” said a British woman in her 60s. She told me she’s had 37 music events canceled so far this spring.

A 20-something waitress said she expects to go broke quickly when she loses her job.

A manager at a grocery store described how her store handled doing 300 times more sales than is typical for this time of year. “All day your adrenaline is just going,” she said. “And then afterwards, you go home and go to bed. That’s it.”

A woman waiting for a bus outside 7-Eleven said she works in a nursing home caring for the elderly, some of whom are at the highest risk for death right now. “It’s scary. It’s very scary. Very scary,” she said. “Especially riding public transportation, you run into all kinds of people, all kinds of different things.”

As we navigate this unprecedented situation, stress and anxiety are peaking for many Denver residents—whether it’s concern about contracting the coronavirus, about loved ones who are at high risk, or about any number of economic and social ripple effects. Zaneta J. Evans, program manager of healthy living for the Mental Health Center of Denver, says the anxiety itself can impact our overall health.

“If we think about what anxiety does to a person’s body in general, those symptoms—whether it’s panic attacks, inability to breathe, increased heart rate, feelings of fatigue—those are all symptoms you have when you catch a cold or get sick, so that can cause your immune system to be weaker.” This, in turn, can make us more susceptible to disease. It can also make us fear we have the virus, a growing anxiety for many, especially since testing is so limited.

In addition to combatting the spread of germs, taking measures to address the increased anxiety we are all feeling is vital. Evans says the way to do this is not by trying to fight off anxiety or distract ourselves all the time, but rather to have open, nonjudgmental dialogues with one another. She compared anxiety to a wildfire that can start small but spread fast if it’s not managed.

“It’s a matter of addressing it, speaking about it. I think when those things are not done it can spread,” Evans said.

As with negative thought-patterns of all sorts, we can get stuck in a loop. Evans suggests taking deep breaths to slow things down and interrupt the process. Baurle seconds the importance of compassionate conversations, and also emphasizes establishing a schedule for each day if your normal one has been upended. Figure out what time you will wake up, when you will eat meals, and what activities you will fill the day with—and stick to it. Limiting time spent on social media and reading news stories can also help with anxiety. “We just need some cognitive space from this information,” Baurle says.

Anxiety is natural right now, and Evans encouraged anyone who is feeling shame about having anxiety to push past that and open up. “I think there’s stigma or judgment on having an anxiety response, but if you can have that conversation and remove that stigma I think that absolutely can help and make a difference,” Evans said. As we listen to one another, being nonjudgmental is crucial. “Each person has a right to feel however they feel. Sometimes it’s a matter of being validating.”

I told Evans that lately the only thing I can think of to say to people is: “It’s crazy.” Apparently I’m not the only one—she said she probably heard that response at least 10 times today.

Instead, she recommends saying this: “It’s real.”