How to stop worrying about Coronavirus and how to deal with isolation are two questions that need helpful answers right now. With more of us being told to stay home and the closure of cafes, bars and sports events, stress responses are rising. Some choose to express their fear and frustration aggressively on social media while others sit home alone in deteriorating mental health. So, at a time when we are forced into ‘physical distancing’ and home isolation, what are the best ways to deal with anxiety both individually and collectively?
Anxiety related to the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease) pandemic is rising. We are in a mental health crisis as much as a community health crisis. As an online mental health therapist working with individuals who are worried, I’ve developed a 4-point response of how you can better cope in this difficult time to maintain your own and others well-being.
1. Get your Own Anxiety under Control through Focussed Psychological Strategies.
When you’re stressed up, your problem solving skills disappear. Cognition, the mental process of understanding through thought, experience and senses starts to break down. In psychology it’s called Acute Stress Response (also known as ‘Flight or Fight or Freeze’). Simply put, you can’t think logically or rationally in a state of panic. So the first thing to do is to get your own anxiety under control.
I work relationally with people so I don’t use the word ‘stress’ on its own. Instead I refer to ‘Stressors’ and your ‘Stress Response’. For example, watching tv news might be a Stressor if you experience your Stress Response – anxiety – rising while watching it. Acute Stress Response is primarily a physical state so you need to address it through physical strategies. Controlled Breathing Techniques and Grounding Exercises are ways to do this. Progressive Muscle Relaxation can also be used to lower anxiety.
When you have lowered your Stress Response, you are in a better position to practice Mindfulness. Mindfulness is just a term that means consciously focussing in the present moment. When you are in the Acute Stress Response your thoughts are more concerned with traumatic memories or imagined scenarios than with what is actually going on right now. This can lead to further distress and the turmoil of emotional states like Anger, Fear and Shame.
There are apps like Headspace and Smiling Mind that you can use to learn calmness-inducing breathing and grounding strategies as well as mindfulness. A mental health therapist can also help you master these techniques. Proper instruction is important: it’s easy to inflame your sympathetic nervous system using incorrect approaches which will result in spiking rather than lowering your anxiety.
If you don’t acknowledge your own Anxiety, chances are you will pass it forward to someone else or, worse, put it out there for collective absorption. Aren’t we all experiencing enough worry already without contributing to more?
Need help with lowering your anxiety? Book an online therapy session.
2. Consider How YOU Might be Contributing to Your Own and Others Panic about Coronavirus.
Every time you speak or act, you affect those in contact with you. Likewise, whenever you post something on social media or to a Whatsapp group, it has an effect. You might be well-intentioned and imagine you are doing good but you could actually be driving up anxiety in others. If you don’t know the current state of the individuals in your audience, it’s better to be cautious and assume they are stressed up. Are you sure your post is going to help them, or might it make them feel worse?
When we share our opinions, we often don’t acknowledge they are a reflection of our own internal emotional states. Simply reposting something you see on the Internet can be failure to recognise your own anxiety. Ask yourself: Why is it important that I post this now and what might happen if I do? If in doubt, leave it out and sort yourself out before you attempt to influence others. Social media posts are like a virus, spreading unchecked and making people sick with fear and worry.
Dwelling in fear is not good for you. If you’re worried or confused, do something about it before your anxiety spreads to others. Knowledge is power. Get your information from an authoritative government source such as the Australian Government Department of Health or the NHS or the CDC. Avoid reposting things you find on Facebook or Reddit that have been passed through a chain of people. For most of us, less exposure to Coronavirus news stories right now is probably better. But if you need to keep in touch, limit your media time and select a reputable public broadcaster like ABC (Australia), BBC (UK) or NPR or PBS (USA). Check the date of the post because outdated information can be unhelpful.
Your mental health and well-being starts with you. Choose how you spend your time and who you communicate with. Are certain individuals in your friendship, family or social networks driving up your anxiety about Coronavirus? Are you hooking into conspiracy theories and other’s fears? Could you be exercising or reading a book instead of pouring over news and social media?
Walking in nature is another grounding activity to engage your senses. And even if you have been told you must stay home you can still exercise. There is plenty of free motivation available on the Internet. Turn to a reliable online provider like the YMCA and workout within your capacity and with activities that your GP would endorse.
Meditation is one particular form of Mindfulness activity that can help you to be calmer and to develop positive emotional states. Meditation is best learned through a teacher so find an online meditation teacher if you are struggling or don’t believe you can do it alone.
3. Remember What You Have. Remember that You Are Capable. Step into Your Power!
Despite the sense of doom that is being conveyed on social media and in news reports, most of us continue to enjoy safe drinking water, a waste service, electricity, the Internet and access to shops to purchase food and groceries. This is in contrast to various times in history that people have done without all of these and even managed to live while buildings around them were being blown up and surrounded by gunfire. Many of us can continue to work remotely from home and even earn an income. Those in good physical condition are unlikely to have their health compromised directly by this coronavirus.
At these times it is worth recollecting what you have and remembering not to take it for granted. You can manage your emotions by firstly accepting them. Focus on what you can control (your own anxiety), not what you can’t (people congregating on overcrowded beaches or in parks). You can decide to appreciate uncertainty just as much as you can decide to work on remaining calm. Stoicism is an approach that comes into its own at times like this.
Re-focus and engage yourself. The way you approach this pandemic is your decision. You have a choice to step into your own power or give it up to a collective surge of panic or outrage or despair.
4. Having Dialogue and Conversations can be Helpful.
Finally, remember that humans are social beings. The expression ‘social distancing’ has, thankfully, now been abandoned in favour of ‘physical distancing’. We need social contact even if we can’t physically touch each other. We are inter-dependant. We rely on others and they rely on us. We benefit from being around others and we affect each other with our presence. This is really why we are taking these precautions. Together we are trying to protect our society and show compassion. This is too easy to forget when we are suffering from fear and worry.
You might have turned to social media to vent. You might have turned on the news to feel connected, particularly if you are isolated and trapped in your own anxious thoughts. But ask yourself if it is working. Do you feel better from so much exposure to images of panic and despair or does it bring you down? Is it motivating you to take care of yourself and others or is causing you to be miserable and aggressive?
We all need support to get through difficult times. If you are finding it hard to do it on your own, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you, it just means you need more support. This is the approach of Self-Compassion. Consider where you might turn for a conversation that is relieving and assists you to be focussed and empowered. Problems dissolve in conversations.
If you begin with managing your anxiety and I begin with managing mine, and each of us is mindful in the way we engage with others, together we can get through this crisis. Get in contact with me if you would like to book an online session for further support or coaching.