Written by Joanna Williams, Head of Counselling at Professional Help.
Anxiety is normal. It is a natural response to a threat, real or perceived; its symptoms are part of our brain’s in-built ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mechanism, and in small doses and in the right circumstance, serves the evolutionary purpose of keeping us alert to danger and able to respond.
However, in larger doses anxiety can be debilitating, as anyone who has experienced it can confirm. Excessive worry and fearfulness lead to mental distress and sometimes physical health problems, so getting help to manage anxiety is a great idea.
At the moment, we’re facing a threat that is real. Common triggers for anxiety (although it can also present with no obvious cause at all) include worries about our own health, our finances, and the wellbeing of our loved ones, all of which are major and valid concerns during this pandemic. People who are prone to anxiety may be finding their mental health more delicate than ever. People with anxiety-related disorders such as OCD may be triggered by the exhortations to hand washing and disinfecting surfaces. Even people who don’t usually feel stressed or anxious are reporting feeling stressed and anxious.
But, we have to go on. We have to function, in our jobs (especially those of us in key roles) and within our families. So what practical steps can we take to manage anxious feelings?
Notice and acknowledge. It might seem counter-intuitive but, when an anxious feeling arises, don’t try to ignore it – or at least, not immediately (see Distraction, below). Notice the feeling and acknowledge it for what it is: a natural response to potential danger and uncertainty. An anxious thought or feeling is natural, but it is also within your control.
Breathe. Paying close attention to our breathing works on lots of levels when managing anxiety: it acts as a distraction; it has beneficial physiological effects (e.g. when you slow your breathing, you slow your heart rate); it reassures us that the anxious responses of our body are within our control. A good way to make sure you are breathing more mindfully is to count to 4 on the inward breath and 8 on the outward. Or visualise a doorway and imagine a light travelling across the horizontal line of the door with your in-breath, and travelling down the vertical when you exhale.
Reach out… we can’t meet in person beyond our immediate families, but we can connect via phone and video call. Talking our worries out with a friend can ease them or even help us find solutions, where they are possible. Many counselling services are moving to online platforms, so you can still access professional, objective support too.
…and step back. There is a lot of Coronavirus information out there at the moment. Some of it is helpful, some less so. The very fact of there being so much available can make us feel pressured to be always paying attention, fearful we might miss something. What results is exposure to a barrage of information and sometimes misinformation, a fine line between traditional news media and (more subjective) social media, and highly emotive stories from the frontline of coping with, and dying from, this virus. You can never absorb it all, and your brain needs a break. Step away. Schedule 2 or 3 set times in the day when you allow yourself to look. We live in a time of rolling news, so you’re unlikely to ‘miss’ something important. It will still be there when you’ve had a breather, and you’ll be better able to absorb it in a healthy way.
Think about what you can do. Part of the stress of the current situation, and a factor that plays well into the hands of anxiety disorders, is the feeling of being out of control. Something enormous is happening, and no, you can’t control it. Beyond the existence of the virus itself, there are other things you can’t control: how other people behave; what steps the government take (though you might be able to usefully influence them); how well-stocked the supermarkets are. Make a list and reflect on the many things you can control, beginning with how you choose to think and behave. This is where your energy needs to go.
Distraction. Doing something different forms new neural pathways in the brain, which in turn improves our resilience and flexibility. Sounds good in a time of crisis, doesn’t it? And a busy brain doesn’t have the time to also be an anxious brain, so if you find yourself with more time on your hands at the moment, try something you haven’t done before. Take steps to learn a new language, try journaling, knitting, cooking, take up a musical instrument. You don’t even need a lot of time; the key is to take a few minutes a day to do something so different (and hopefully interesting!) that it completely absorbs you.
Self-care. Yes, we hear a lot about self-care, but that’s because it works; and self-care means whatever works for you. In a stressful time, more than ever you need to take time out to do the things that make you feel good, and most importantly, that make you feel nurtured and safe. That might be curling up with a book, having a soak in the bath, or napping in the afternoon. It might be a high-intensity workout or a yoga session (both of which we can, happily, take part in online).
If self-care feels like an indulgence, or if any of these steps feel unnatural for you? Try this one simple thing: ask yourself how you would treat a close friend who came to you and said she was struggling with anxiety. Make a list of all the things you would say to her and do for her.
Now show yourself the same kindness.