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Anxiety During Covid-19?

Many of my clients have expressed feelings of anxiety during the current global pandemic. I myself experienced some stirrings of anxiousness during the early days of toilet paper shortages. I recall going to my local grocery store and seeing the entire meat section empty just as the first real wave of anxiety swept over me.

Anxiety is normal. We all (aside from a select few medical anomalies) experience anxiety. In fact, we NEED to experience it; anxiety is what keeps us safe. Most of the time it’s trying to help us. In the case of a global medical crisis, our anxiety is trying to make sure we’re prepared and healthy. When I saw the empty meat section at my grocery store, my anxiety was trying to tell me, “we need food to survive and we better make sure we act soon to get some”, but it came across more like, “What?! No meat? What if there is never going to ever be meat again?!” I reminded myself that likely wasn’t true and proceeded to get the other things I came for. My anxiety was just trying to be helpful and yours is too.

I like to think of anxiety as a worried friend. It might frustrate me now and then, but it’s not trying to be difficult. I try to approach it the same way I would approach my worried friend:

“I know you’re concerned. I get that. These things can be scary, for sure. Let’s take some deep breaths and keep going, ok? Nothing bad is happening right now.”

We are in the middle of a worldwide crisis and we don’t yet know how or when it will all be resolved. It seems reasonable to be a bit nervous about that! Still, the anxiety you’re feeling might be overwhelming. Let’s talk about some things you can do to  get through this uncertain time.

  1. Accept your anxiety. Our instinct is always to try to push anxiety away. We want to stop feeling so anxious. We want to feel calm and steady. It seems like everyone else is handling things so much better than we are and we want to be able to feel differently. So we push against anxiety and try to make it go away. Anxiety doesn’t go away, though, when we push harder. It just gets bigger. Avoiding anxiety is not how we make it easier. We make it easier by accepting it. We invite the worried friend in and make it tea. We tell it, “I hear you. You’re scared.” I know what you’re thinking…How do I do that? How do I accept my sweaty palms and racing heart and the thoughts that just won’t stop? Great questions. I suggest you start by taking some deep breaths and saying to yourself, “This is me feeling anxious. I don’t need to make this go away. I am going to breathe and try to just sink into these feelings. I will try to surrender.” Simple? Yes. Easy? Definitely not. It will take time to put this first step into practice and change the way you respond to anxiety.
  2. Grounding exercises. Anxiety often lives in the future. Anxiety is constantly asking, “What if…?” One of the ways to counter this is to remind your brain that currently you are not experiencing anything that might happen. Grounding exercises can be helpful. The goal of a grounding exercise is to bring you into the present moment. Look around you and experience what is present right now. What do you see? What do you hear? What can you smell? What do you feel with your body? Becoming extremely aware of the present takes your mind out of the future based anxiety.
  3. Use your noggin. When you are feeling extremely anxious, your brain is activating its fight or flight response. This response is counter to your logical mind in many ways. One way to remind your brain that it doesn’t need to fight or flee is to engage your reasoning mind. Try doing a slightly difficult math problem, like figuring out how much change you should get if you pay $20 for a coffee that costs $3.78. Pick up a crossword or sudoku puzzle, even if it feels insanely difficult to focus on at first. We are teaching your brain that it doesn’t need to panic and in fact, it has time for trivial reasoning.
  4. Engage your fine digits. Your brain wants all the blood and energy to go to your big muscles and organs. That’s why your heart is racing and you’re breathing so fast. Let’s teach it that you don’t need to be ready to bolt or go ten rounds with a tiger. Do something that engages your fingers and toes. Play the piano or guitar. Colour. Write in a journal (this actually uses step 3 as well). Play with a fidget toy.
  5. Move your body slowly and deliberately. Try some stretching, Qi gong, yoga, or other slow movement. Feel your body moving and notice as much as you can. How slowly can you move? How does your left calf muscle feel when you walk very slowly up the stairs? Your body is being reminded that right now, you are safe.

Anxiety is hard and many of us are experiencing more of it right now because our normal coping skills are not as available as they usually are. Be sure to reach out to friends and family members, or ask for help if your anxiety feels like it’s too much. Many people are experiencing the same feelings you are and it may help to remember that you’re not alone.

Photo by Finn on Unsplash

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