Our world is riddled with fear and anxiety. Finances. Aargh! How will we pay the rent/mortgage or have money to pay for food when we're out of work? We're lonely and miss the times when we could be with our friends and family. If we have kids, we agonize over what kind of impact the lockdown is having on them, and if we’ll survive home-schooling and 24/7/365 childcare. And then there’s the very real possibility that we or our loved ones might come down with the virus.
When our brain is hijacked by so many strong emotions, it may seem that there is nothing we can do to diminish our fear or anxiety. Yet, there is a way to manage how we feel. To start, just breathe. Not only physically breathe, but use the B.R.EA.T.H.E. technique, as described below.
Take three deep breaths, focusing purely on your breath as you inhale (through your nose if you can) on a count of 4, hold for a count of 3, then exhale (through your mouth if you can) on a count of 4. This technique is called a “pattern interrupt.” Whenever an anxious thought creeps up, by focusing on your breathing for only a few moments, you will interrupt the pattern of panic or fearful emotions just long enough to calm down your racing mind, and your body’s over-active flight/fight response.
Deep breathing relaxes your heartbeat and steadies you so you can get back to constructive thought. You know, the problem-solving variety, as opposed to the “Chicken Little the sky is falling” variety. So, the first step to control anxiety is to take three, slow, deliberate deep breaths whenever the need arises.
Reclaim Your Relationships
Reclaim your relationships with your family, your significant other, your children and your friends. If you're with your kids at home, see it as a positive even if they're loud and demanding sometimes (OK, always). Appreciate this "forced togetherness" and view it as a unique opportunity to grow close. The internet is full of ideas and resources that can help you cope with being together intensely under one roof.
In addition, make the effort to call, text and set up Zoom gatherings with extended family and friends. You need their support, and they need yours. Connection is more vital now than ever. Be creative. This is not a time to ignore the relationships that matter to you.
Express Your Emotions
Find a safe person, someone you can trust with your emotional life. Finding such a person and interacting with them regularly can be a critical way of easing your anxiety. This can be a counselor, a minister, or a healthcare worker, for example. It’s tempting to unload on your BFF, but a professional is better equipped to deal with your fears and anxiety on an ongoing basis.
A good alternative - or adjunct - is to express your emotions in a private journal. Journaling gives you the opportunity to express your innermost feelings. It's your safe and private place to talk about the stresses you're feeling. Journaling can be cathartic since you're no longer holding your feelings inside. You don’t have to be a writer to journal. You can scribble nonsense on a pad, rage all over your keyboard, and be as ungrammatical as you like. Journaling is a release, not an exercise in either penmanship or prose.
Aim Your Focus
When we're in the midst of a crisis, the tendency is to allow our focus to drift back to the cause of your anxiety again and again. It keeps you up at night. All night. Not good for your health! Besides, rehashing your troubles endlessly only succeeds in making you more anxious, more stressed, more out of control.
Deliberately, purposefully aim your focus. When you find yourself drifting into useless worry or questioning, take charge and do your best to problem-solve. Be a MacGyver, get intrigued by what you can accomplish with what’s at hand, here and now, rather than sweating over what you can’t, obsessively.
Transform Your Negative Thoughts
Closely related to aiming your focus is transforming your negative thoughts. Be alert to when your thoughts veer into negative thinking. Reframe them into more positive statements.
So, for example, “I’ve been laid off, it’s horrible, how am I ever going to survive this?” can be reframed to “I’ve been laid off, OK, I’m not the only person experiencing this. I’m good at what I do, I will bounce back. I've applied for unemployment. That will help.”
Above all, be sincere. Don’t lie to yourself “Oh, it’s all going to be fine,” may eventually be true, but if that’s not what you believe in the here and now, don’t say it. One of my favorite reframes is “We’re one day closer to normal.” That, for me, has the ring of truth.
Heal Your Body
Pay attention to the physical manifestations of anxiety or stress. Stick with a healthy routine. Don't overeat or over drink. Don’t let the refrigerator or the drinks cabinet be your “go-to” when really you’re simply bored. Boredom is much better alleviated with exercise, or reading, or some kind of productive work than with munching your way through the day.
Make sure you are getting enough sleep, since good sleep is one of the body’s best restorative tools. Given that sleep can be difficult when you’re stressed, consider using one of the calming meditations readily available online, usually for free, to help lull you into sleep.
Get rid of your anxious thoughts before you turn the lights out: toss them into an imaginary wastebasket. Follow that up with writing down a list of everything you were grateful for that day, and let those be the thoughts you carry with you into slumber.
You love working out at the gym—but the gym is closed. You look forward to your weekly game of tennis with your friends—but the gate to tennis courts is locked. Don't make the excuse of not exercising because exercise options are no longer available. Exercise at home—there are multitudinous YouTube exercise videos of all kinds. I’ve found enough ballet barre videos to keep me going for quite a while! Exercise is not only good for your body, it releases endorphins that help you get into a more positive, calmer, less anxious frame of mind.
Wash your hands, observe social distancing, wear that mask, and B.R.E.A.T.H.E.! Hopefully we’ll all meet together on the flip side of COVID-19, having weathered this challenging time successfully.