Anxiety. Everyone is feeling it during the pandemic. Anxiety about the virus, anxiety about going places and not knowing how safe it is due to the virus, anxiety about the economy, anxiety about paying rent or medical bills when finances have been impacted by the virus, anxiety about sending kids back to school, anxiety about dating during the pandemic, anxiety about missing out on experiences, anxiety about the future, anxiety about having anxiety! Did I name yours yet?
As an expert in treating anxiety, I’ve seen the spike in anxiety caused by the pandemic for my clients, my friends and family and neighbors, and at times for myself as well. Anxiety is part of being human: it is our fight-flight-or-freeze reaction that evolved as a survival instinct, to help us avoid or defeat serious and immediate threats to our safety. That instinct was meant to trigger a burst of energy (cortisol, a stress hormone, which tells us to ‘hit the gas’) for a short window of time for us to get to safety. It wasn’t meant to be a way of living and feeling day to day; staying in fight-or-flight state for extended periods wreaks havoc on our bodies (messing with our digestion, decreased sleep or sleep quality, compromising our immune system), our mental capacity (our executive functions like focus, memory, decision-making and planning), and our ability to cope (regulating emotion, mood, behavior). In most of my work pre-pandemic, I taught people to recognize their survival instinct turning on and staying on when it wasn’t necessary – while getting stressed is normal and can be motivating, getting highly anxious in scenarios like public speaking, test taking, and socializing can be counter-productive, embarrassing, and limiting for our potential. My job was helping people over-ride and turn off their “panic button.”
Anxiety, as well as anxiety treatment, during the pandemic is a bit different. Your brain is not wrong to think that there are dangerous threats lurking around the corner in your current environment or near future. There are real threats right now to our physical safety, our financial stability, our children’s social and academic development, and our mental and emotional well-being. The challenge is not to eliminate the fear that we are feeling, as we would treat a phobia by eliminating the fear of a test or public speaking or entering a group conversation. The challenge in coping with anxiety in the pandemic is to be okay, right here and now, in spite of real fears and real obstacles. To be able to be calm amidst threats.
Coping with anxiety during the pandemic is about being present, mindful, courageous, and compassionate. We must be present because thinking into the future is uncertain and can be scary, while the present is usually okay enough for us to feel okay. We must be mindful in order to keep ourselves in the present – catching ourselves when we start to dread or overthink things, shifting our focus to present experiences. We must be courageous to mindfully notice our fear and yet still choose to focus on the here and now and try to enjoy it. And we must be compassionate with ourselves and each other because courage in the face of this fear is hard, mindfulness takes practice, and being present can be truly challenging – so we have to be kind as we fumble through the process.
Here is how:
– Be Present: The present is where we have control of our choices and actions, and where we can enjoy positive experiences if we choose to do so. You can practice pulling yourself back into the present in different ways throughout your day. Choose activities during your day to “tune in” as much as possible – turn off the phone, have the goal in mind that you are going to be present, and focus on your five senses and what you are experiencing in that moment. That can be eating a meal, taking a walk, or even brushing your teeth. In the moment you are doing something, think only of that thing and chances are that it feels okay: there isn’t anything painful or scary about brushing your teeth right? Eating something delicious is enjoyable, right? When you focus your attention on what you are doing and feeling in that moment then you can start noticing feeling and being okay. And if you can notice being or feeling better than okay, by tuning in to more positive experiences than just tooth-brushing or eating – well that’s even better! If it is tough staying present though, start with these small moments. Some of my clients who struggle with feelings of panic find comfort in reminding themselves, “In this _______ (moment, 10 seconds, breath, minute, hour, activity) I am safe, I am okay.”
– Be Mindful. Being present is a big part of mindfulness, and practicing mindfulness will help strengthen your ability to be fully present. If you are looking to start a mindfulness practice, pick whatever practice you will actually stick to: could you use Headspace app every day for a month? Could you watch a short guided meditation on Youtube 3 mornings a week, keeping it on your google calendar as a reminder? Can you meditate before you fall asleep 3 nights a week or more, using the Peaceful Place Meditation (see instructions here https://thesibleygroupdc.com/5-easy-mindfulness-practices/)? Would you listen to a meditation from tarabrach.com (highly recommend- she is wonderful) once a week? Choose ONE practice you will stick to, and incorporate it into your daily or weekly routine – your mind needs this as routine hygiene the same way you need to brush and floss and shower. Know that you might not feel relief or relaxation the first time or the first ten times that you do this – you don’t lose weight your first time on a treadmill either, it actually might be pretty uncomfortable at first. This is a “If you build it (your mindfulness practice), they (calm feelings) will come” type of deal that takes a lot of repetition but research shows the massive payoffs for your brain and your mood in as short as 8 weeks. In as little as 2 weeks, my clients notice feeling calmer, having an easier time meditating for longer, and having less distress in response to triggers.
– Be Courageous. Choosing to be present, and practicing mindfulness to get better at staying present, is a courageous thing to do in the face of a TON of uncertainty and fear. Your anxiety is your survival instinct telling you to actively do something to get away from danger, so the urge is to worry, fixate, obsess, check the news, lest you might forget about the threat and then lower your survival chances. The courageous choice here is to bravely tune out the threat – to notice the anxiety but ignore your own instincts and trust that it will be ok to do this, in order to take back control of your own nervous system and access your experiences in the present. This is hard work! The good news is: We can do hard things! Think back to a time that you did something hard even though it was scary or painful – maybe pushing through running a marathon, or your first day at a new job, or maybe it was recently going somewhere public with a mask on even though you felt scared. Notice how it felt to use your courage, and know that this courage is a resource you have used so many times already in your life – it’s in there, ready for you to use it now, and you’ve already been using it some to get through your daily life since the pandemic started.
– Be Compassionate. Did you just read my paragraph on courage and think to yourself, “But what if I can’t ignore my anxiety? What if I’m not courageous?” That’s okay. All of it – everything you’re feeling, the good, the bad, the courage, the anxiety – it is all okay. You are human and you are trying your best so be kind to yourself. I tell my clients often to think about their self-talk. If you’re in the middle of a soccer game and you’re getting exhausted, do you want your teammates and fans yelling at you, judging you, or shaming you? Of course not – you want encouragement. Some people prefer direct advice and tough love from the sidelines, while others want gentle and affectionate soothing words, but all people need to feel encouraged because we need connection and a belief in ourselves in order to overcome challenges. That encouragement can come from your own inner voice. Your self-talk when you’re struggling should sound like the kind of encouragement you most like to hear in order to feel connected and to believe in yourself. Mine sounds direct like this: “I’ve got this. I can handle this. This situation/this feeling is temporary. I can do hard things.” What does yours need to sound like? Start practicing it with yourself, and while you’re at it you can practice on your loved ones too.
You’ve got this. You can handle this. You can do hard things. You already possess all the strength and courage that you need in order to manage your anxiety through this awful time; with practice, patience, and self-compassion, you can feel better. And support is here if you need it – therapy is a great way to connect with your inner resources when going through a challenging time.