Life as you have known it may feel very different right now. We are facing a global pandemic. Cities, and even entire countries are essentially shutting down, and the well-being of ourselves and our communities is on the line. Anxiety typically shows up when we face uncertainty and/or a lack of control. COVID-19’s emergence was out of our control, how others respond to it is out of our control, and there is much uncertainty surrounding how things will progress. So, it makes sense that you might notice a heightened level of anxiety. This is completely normal. But, how you respond to that anxiety can determine whether you feel empowered, or debilitated.
Anxiety is not “bad”
A certain amount of anxiety can be motivating, and is necessary. For example, if you didn’t feel any anxiety related to the pandemic, then you might not wash your hands, socially distance, or follow other guidelines recommended by health authorities. This would put you and those around you at risk. Fear, in this case, motivates us to take precautions and protect the well-being of ourselves and others.
Respond, rather than react
However, too much anxiety, worry, stress, and/or fear can cause our mind to hit the “panic” button. When we reach this point we are no longer able to function in a helpful way to events that require problem solving. Our bodies go into the “fight or flight” mode, and we begin instinctively reacting instead of thoughtfully responding. Conversely, we might completely withdraw and isolate in the face of stress and become immobilized. Neither response is helpful, but it can be difficult to recognize when this is happening and learn how to respond in more effective ways.
Awareness and regulation
The first step is to practice paying attention to your internal self. Learn to recognize the sensations, emotions, and thoughts that may be signals that you’re crossing into an unhelpful “zone” of anxiety.
For instance, you might be in the middle of a two hour deep-dive into news articles about the pandemic and notice your heart is beating faster, your breathing is shallower, your hands are shaking, and your mind is racing. These are common signals of heightened anxiety and they may be your mind’s attempt at encouraging you to take a break and regulate.
Oftentimes, we can become fearful of these signals and of anxiety itself. We try to ignore, push away, or control the feelings because it can be uncomfortable. However, these attempts at coping will just intensify the anxiety.
It’s like scratching at a rash on your skin: the more you scratch, the itchier, redder, and more swollen the rash becomes. There may be momentary relief from scratching, but the discomfort will intensify. A more helpful way to respond would be to stop itching, and find some medication or salve that would provide longer lasting relief and help you heal.
Regulation is the salve for anxiety. A set of skills and responses that can enable you to accept what you’re experiencing, and take steps toward effectively addressing the problem. It’s important to know that what works for one person may not work for everyone. Try out some of these tips and skills to help you regulate anxiety surrounding COVID-19 or anxiety in general:
Be mindful of your exposure to the news.
It is important to stay up-to-date on developments in the outbreak so you can follow advised precautions. But, you want to avoid falling into rabbit holes of misinformation, sensationalized stories, or overconsumption which can be fuel for unhelpful fear.
- Stick to reliable news sources such as the CDC, or World Health Organization, and your local public health authorities.
- Limit how often and for how long you’re checking for updates. You might designate a specific time frame and time of day for checking the news (e.g. 30 minutes at 9 AM each morning and 30 minutes at 6 PM each night).
- Ask a trusted friend or family member to share updates as needed if you’d rather avoid the news all-together.
Distance, not isolation.
Although we may have to be further apart physically from our loved ones right now, that doesn’t mean we have to feel isolated. It’s as important as ever to continue to communicate and connect with others.
- Call or facetime friends and family members regularly to check-in.
- Use Netflix Party to watch movies with friends while you’re apart.
- Join a Support Group to connect with others who might be experiencing similar feelings.
Maintain a sense of normalcy through routine.
Whether you’re in quarantine, self-isolating, following a shelter-in-place mandate, working from home, or out of work, it’s important to create some structure in your daily routine to maintain a sense of stability.
- Follow a regular sleep-wake cycle and have meals around the same times each day.
- Create a schedule of work, rest, play, etc. and try to stick to it.
- Get creative incorporating your typical self-care activities (e.g. tune in to an online workout class when you would usually be exercising)
Use self-soothing techniques if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
When anxiety intensifies, we can feel ‘lost’ or ‘trapped in a spiral of thoughts. If you notice any of those signals I mentioned earlier, try practicing some of these techniques to bring you back to reality and, in turn, calm your body and mind.
- Grounding is a tool to bring you back to the present instead of focusing on worries about the future or ruminating on the past.
- Move your body! Tension can start to build up if we are chronically anxious or stressed. Release through movement. This could be something as simple as jogging in place, jumping up and down, or stretching.
- Focus on your breath. See if you can pay attention only to the flow of your breathing. Be gentle with yourself when your mind wanders and redirect back to the breath.
- Give yourself a hug. It may sound silly, but it’s been proven that hugs release the feel-good hormone Oxytocin, and that self-hugs are just as effective!
- Practice Self Compassion. Remind yourself that it’s normal to feel anxious. Think of what you might say to a friend if they were feeling similarly and speak to yourself in that way.
- Get outside (while maintaining social distance). Practice mindful walking, maintaining awareness of your senses.
“Your calm mind is the ultimate weapon against your challenges.”Bryant McGill
Anxiety becomes scary when we believe that we ‘can’t handle it’, or that the feeling will ‘last forever’. The reality is, you can handle it, and the feeling is only temporary. With awareness and practice, your feelings of anxiety, fear, or stress can become motivators for action and creative thinking. Remind yourself that this situation is bound to bring up uncomfortable emotions, and that your mental health may need extra care and attention.