Chances are, if you’re like most people, your anxiety level has increased a bit lately as a result of COVID-19 and the outbreak of the coronavirus. With social media and news bombarding us with information, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and a little (or maybe a lot) anxious.
For many people who live with anxiety on a regular basis, this just contributes to an already existing way of life and most likely exacerbates it. However, for the rest, this is a sobering welcome to the world of anxiety.
Anxiety thrives on uncertainty. And right now, things are uncertain. A lot of what is happening in our world is outside our control — and anxiety lives off of fear of the unknown and what we can’t control.
But there are practical and simple steps you can take to help mitigate your worry and fear. Here are a couple.
Set Limits On Social Media & News
Yes, it’s important to stay up to date. But there is no need to obsess and stay glued to the TV or your phone. It won’t change the outcome or your level of risk. It will however, most certainly increase your anxiety much, much more.
Schedule times to view news updates and be selective in the sources you choose. The CDC is regularly updating their website with helpful information. Pick one or two trusted news sources and don’t let yourself get sucked into headlines designed to create fear and panic.
I recommend checking in once or twice daily with local news and once or twice daily with a trusted national news source like The Washington Post, The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal. Five minutes is more than enough time to scan the latest information and get updates. Anything more is needless and will only contribute to increased worry and fear.
Those close to me and most of my clients know that I recommend avoiding social media as much as possible under normal circumstances because it rarely contributes to an increased sense of self-worth, self-confidence, self-esteem, and overall well-being.
Given that so much of the information currently being posted is inaccurate, fear-mongering and baseless, now seems like a great time to just steer clear. I know what some may be thinking, “But I want to know what my friends are doing!” Guess what, the same thing you are!
Focus On What You Can Control
When we focus on, and try to control that which is outside our control, it only leads to more anxiety and worry. We can’t control how long our children’s school will be closed or how much toilet paper will be on the shelf when we go to the store. Nor can we control if that big event we were planning to attend will be cancelled.
Shift your attention to what you can control. For example, the things that will give you the best chance of staying healthy. Washing your hands is the #1 most recommended way to stay healthy and avoid spreading the coronavirus. Keep your hands away from your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Take precautions like staying home from work or school if you are sick. If you are older or have underlying health conditions or a compromised immune system, staying in as much as possible and avoiding group functions is well within your control.
You can control the way in which you spend your time. Connect with family members and friends via chat, text, FaceTime, and phone. Finish up those long overdue projects around the house. Pick up that book that’s been collecting dust on your nightstand. Get lost in some of your favorite Netflix shows or movies. Bonus tip: skip the post-apocalyptic genre. Tempting as it may be, I assure you it will only serve to increase your anxiety.
Get Plenty Of Sleep
Anyone who suffers from anxiety knows when you don’t get enough sleep, your anxiety is worse. And we all know sleep is one of the most vital factors in improving our immune system. Additionally, sufficient sleep helps with alertness during the day and decreased stress levels.
So turn off the TV and put the book down a bit earlier and get some extra sleep. And please, for the love of god, do not lay in bed with your phone scrolling through updates before bed. This is a sure way to ruin a good night’s sleep and increase anxiety. Not to mention the blue light from the screen triggers a delay in sleep-inducing melatonin and increases alertness.
Shoot for a minimum of 7–8 hours per night. If you’re struggling to get that much due to anxiety or other factors, skip the naps during the day as it will only make it harder to catch up at night, thus turning into a vicious cycle.
Get Outside & Get Moving
The weather is starting to turn and spring is upon us. The sun is making more frequent appearances and the temperature is increasing. Now is the time to get outside. Fresh air and sunshine do wonders for our mood and anxiety levels. Additionally, the sun is our best source of Vitamin D, which plays a major role in maintaining a healthy immune system.
Find some outdoors activities that sooth your soul and put your mind at ease. Take a walk with the kids. Go for a run. Get a head start on cleaning up the yard for spring. Or, if you’re a bit of a procrastinator like me, now is a great time to finally take down the Christmas lights!
Short shallow breathing can lead to a shortage of oxygen in our brain. When our brain senses a shortage of oxygen, it triggers the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system) in our body which triggers adrenaline and prevents us from being able to access the part of our brain responsible for logic and reason. And we all know what happens when logic and reason goes out the door — anxiety comes barreling in!
When people feel anxious they tend to breathe in their upper lungs (chest) in short, shallow breaths, instead of breathing into their lower lungs (diaphragm).
Not sure if you’re doing it right?
Try this: raise your arms over your head and lock your fingers together. Now, turn your hands outward so your palms are facing the ceiling. Now breathe. If you did it right, you noticed your stomach expanding like a balloon. This is diaphragmatic breathing and it’s widely known to be one of the most effective deep breathing exercises.
Once you’ve gotten a feel for how to breath into your diaphragm, try this: Breathe deeply in through your nose to a count of 4. Then slowly exhale through your mouth to a count of 8. It’s important to not suck in your breath or push it out. Slow and steady is the key. Imagine your breath like the waves lapping on the shore at the beach. They come in and they go out — constant — never stopping. Be sure not to hold in your breath.
The key in this exercise is longer exhalations which triggers the vagus nerve. The role of the vagus nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system is to slow the sympathetic stress response, thus relaxing your body and allowing you to access that part of your brain that helps you think rationally.
If ever there was a time to harness the power of “There is no time like the present,” it would be now. It’s easy to get caught up in what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. However, this is precisely the type of thinking that breeds anxiety, fear, and worry.
In its most basic form, mindfulness is simply defined as present moment awareness, with an attitude of acceptance and curiosity — not judgment. A great way to practice is to use your senses as a way to help ground you to the present moment.
One of my favorite exercises utilizes all five senses — The 54321 Exercise. Take a moment and notice 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you feel, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. This is just one variation of this exercise. You can mix it up any way you like and make it your own.
The beauty of mindfulness is in its simplicity. Simply put, anything you are doing can be a mindfulness exercise. Next time you take a shower, take note of every aspect of the experience using all your senses. The feel of the water over each part of your body, the sound of the water, the smell of the soap, and everything you see in the shower, and so on.
The more you practice present moment awareness the easier it will become. Additionally, as one becomes more engaged in each moment, focus and concentration begin to improve and there is essentially a cascade of benefits which included a reduction in anxiety. Don’t believe me? Next time you find yourself feeling anxious, stop and take note of where your thoughts are. There’s a very good chance they were somewhere in the near or distant future — a place you have no control over — where anxiety lives.
The reality is right now is an anxious time. There is a lot of unknown and there are valid reasons to be concerned. Anxiety is a normal response to this. And it can even be helpful as it will encourage us to take precautionary measures to protect ourselves and prepare. But there are steps you can take to minimize and manage so it doesn’t overwhelm you.
James Killian, LPC is the Principal Therapist & Owner of Arcadian Counseling in New Haven, CT where they specialize in helping over-thinkers, high achievers, and perfectionists take control and move From Surviving to Thriving.