Feeling anxious? Tips for coping in this time of COVID-19
As a nation we are anxious. We are on alert. Hyperfocused. It is both comforting to know we are all in this together and overwhelming for those of us who were already dealing with anxiety.
Recognize that because this is a time of change as well as uncertainty, our minds do what minds do – trying to problem solve. We have survived by being able to think ahead, which means we can anticipate problems and plan solutions. This helps us reach our goals. There are things in this situation that are unknown to all of us. We hate uncertainty. It feels dangerous. It isn’t dangerous, but it feels that way. Our mind tells us that we have to keep trying to solve the problem, find the certainty, and our bodies ready for danger.
Thinking ahead turns to worry when our minds go over and over the same problem, and churn out more and more catastrophic scenarios. The more extreme the scenarios, the more anxious we become. In effect, in the absence of being able to solve the problem, our mind tells us that there is danger.
Anxiety is not just in our minds, however. It also lives in our bodies as muscle tension, headaches, restlessness, insomnia, stomach pains, and just plain exhaustion. Our bodies are readying for danger, because our mind tells us that our current situation is dangerous. Unless you are, in this moment, actively kissing strangers or licking grocery cart handles, what you are doing in this moment is most likely not dangerous.
So what can you do to help yourself through this?
Help your body let go of readying itself for danger:
Stretch when you get out of bed or any time you feel tight or tense
Get active in any way that increases your heart rate
Breathe. When we are tense we breathe shallowly. Deep slow breathing helps to turn on our calming nervous system. It works best if you exhale first, then slowly inhale. Notice how much air you can fit in your lungs. Then slowly exhale until you are empty. Repeat.
Use relaxation and mindfulness apps. I am a fan of Headspace, Calm, Relax Melodies. Find one where the person’s voice is appealing to you.
Ground yourself in the present by paying attention to your five senses. You can do this while you do other things (eating a meal, rocking a baby, taking a walk) or being still. Go through each sense and ask yourself to notice. Your thoughts will distract you. When you get caught up in a thought, notice it happened, then refocus on the sense you were paying attention to.
Help your mind let go of worry.
Practice labeling your thoughts as helpful problem solving vs unhelpful worry.
Practice delaying worry. Plan a time each day for unhelpful worry. Be specific – what time and how long. 10-30 minutes is usually sufficient for this exercise. During that time you can sit and think, or even better – write down your worries. Throughout the day when you notice yourself worrying, remind yourself “Now is not the time to think about this. I will save it for worry time.”
Set small goals for yourself each day. Make them small and doable. I will text one friend. I will go outside and take a few deep breaths. I will stretch before bed. I will do five push-ups when I want to yell. I will write down one thing I am grateful for each day.
Plan one thing each day that is just for you. You may be caretaking all day. You may be caretaking while also trying to work. You need something for you or this will not be sustainable. Pleasure is an integral part of mental health.
Practice gratitude. You can even make it a game with friends. The “silver lining” game. Come up with awful scenarios and see who can come up with a positive spin the fastest.
Limit discussion with others and media exposure about COVID-19 to just 1-2 times a day, and just long enough for you to find out what you need to know to live your life safely right now.
Talk with your partner about what you both need to stay emotionally grounded during this time. Fifteen minutes to take an uninterrupted bath? Dedicated space for each of you to work? A family walk every evening? Make a plan for how you can each gift each other with what you need.
Pay attention to how much you are relying on your spouse for your social and emotional needs. In the best of times our partners cannot meet all our social, emotional, and intimacy needs. Now that we are unable to be with our other people, it is natural to lean on them. But solely relying on your spouse to meet your needs is not any better in this situation than it was before this pandemic hit.
Reach out to your social network. Even if you are an introvert a few minutes of talking with someone outside your home about something not related to the current situation can be helpful.
Intentionally talk about other topics with friends. The more we talk about COVID-19, and the more we listen or read about it in the media, the more dangerous it feels. Its the same phenomenon that leads people to feel that flying in an airplane is more dangerous than driving yourself to work. We don’t read about the trillions of car trips taken around the world without incident, but every plane crash gets significant media coverage. Our brains take that and make an attribution error – we hear about it more, so it must be more dangerous. Counteracting this natural misperception takes intention.
Focus on what you can control.
Environment: Most of us feel better when our environment is calming and restorative. This can be challenging with little ones home all day. Be realistic. Is there one room, or even a corner, that you can arrange to be a calm zone? A place you can go, even briefly, where when you look around and feel a sense of calm?
Schedule: Find a schedule for your family. Then, change it up every once in a while. We don’t know how long this will last. Creating a schedule is something concrete we can do. The predictability of a schedule, especially with getting up, going to bed, and meals, is helpful for our mental state and also for our bodies. But we also have to protect against the monotony and overwhelm of being at home and together for so long. So once it is set, don’t be afraid to change it up. Make pajama day, movie day, dress up day, superhero day, hike in the woods day, give to others day. You know your family. Get creative.
Practice self-compassion: Be kind to yourself. Let go of perfection and self-judgment. This is a unique time with challenges we have not faced as a community or a nation in our lifetime. Have good intentions and give yourself credit for those, even if you fall short of implementing them. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can.
Look for growth in the trauma of this time:
Challenges can force us to find strengths we didn’t know we had. Creativity. Endurance. Perseverance. Patience. Gratitude. Self-compassion. Pay attention – what are you learning about yourself in this situation that may help you in the future?
Ask for help. If even doing these things feels like too much, or if your anxiety or overwhelm is keeping you from being able to do the basics of what is needed right now, reach out. We live in an age where telehealth is a reality, and across the country therapists are offering therapy using all sorts of electronic means to reach those who need support. I am in my office, and in the past week have talked with clients who were in their bedrooms, bathrooms, cars, and offices. We do what we need to do to reach out to each other. It will be ok. We are in this together.