Anxiety in the Midst of Coronavirus
Coronavirus (COVID19) is here. And it feels like it’s everywhere, including places where we once considered “safe”. Hundreds of thousands of people have been socially distancing themselves in a global bid to #flattenthecurve. Five days into working from home, even for a happy introvert like me, I’m starting to bear the brunt of this pandemic in a very personal way.
If your mental health went down hills because of coronavirus, you’re not alone. Whether it’s because your routine has been messed up, your job is on the line or your life’s savings plummeted, people are complaining about feeling incredibly anxious during this unprecedented time. No one has an idea how long it’ll take for us to contain the virus and we’ll be able to go back to “normal”. And this is making all us anxious.
A modicum of anxiety is actually needed for us to preserve our human existence. Mild to moderate anxiety helps us wake up in the morning, eat healthy, and exercise. We try to live our best today because we want a better tomorrow. The problem is when anxiety is so overpowering that it starts to hijack the amygdala, the part of our brain that controls the fear response. When the amygdala is over-activated, it seriously undermines the frontal lobes’ ability to engage in logical thinking, decision-making, and planning. It’s important for us to manage our anxiety so that we can make the best decisions for us and our family during this stressful time.
Here is a strategy to help you manage your anxiety during uncertain times:
1. Limit the amount of news you watch, read or hear.
We all need to stay informed, especially when things are changing so fast. But, if you’re finding yourself glued to the computer or your TV because you just can’t stop feeding yourself the latest news, you’re engaging in counter-productive activity. Your brain and emotions need some breathing space to process what you are absorbing.
The best way to do this is by scheduling set times to get your news feed. Depending on your line of study/work and how critical it is for you to stay on top of new information, you might want to schedule your “news time” as often or as little as possible. The key is to schedule and plan so that you’re not plugged in 24/7.
2. Check the news sources.
If you have access to several group chats and social media, you might have seen fear-mongering messages that warn people of how coronavirus is hurting our loved ones, ruining our economy, and our environment. For example, I recently received a message from a group chat warning me to be aware of people knocking on doors pretending they are testing for the virus. The message added, “Do not open. They are criminals. Tell all your friends and family.”
There was no source. No author name. No location. No date. No information on reported cases of such criminal activity. No target group. No data on how many people have been impacted by this alleged criminality. This is the problem with fake news: it thrives in uncertain times and uses fear to hijack your amygdala which results in fight-flight-freeze response, undermining your rational thinking brain. So, please, if you are going to be consuming news, ensure that you are accessing valid and reliable sources.
3. Stay connected.
Social distancing can be hard on us humans. We are wired to connect with each other. This is especially the case when we are struggling emotionally. If you live alone and don’t have good reasons to get out of the home because everything is closed anyways, you might find it extra challenging. Also, if your loved one has a compromised immune system and lives in a home, this can be a morally perplexing time.
Thankfully, we have technology that allows us to connect with friends, family, and colleagues during this strange time. Check in with people around you. Ask them how they are doing. Wish them well. If you feel comfortable, share your own challenges and vulnerabilities. Let them know you are thinking about them. Simple thoughts can go a long way. If you are feeling weirded-out with your world closing down, you’re not alone. By reaching out to people around you, you are not only giving them a chance to support you, but you are also looking after those around you that might really need you now.
4. You are not your worries.
When strong emotions like anxiety, worries, and dread visit us, they can trick us into believing that we are that which we feel. For example, someone who is unsure what’s going to happen to their job, it would be normal to feel insecure. The thought process might go like this: “I don’t think my employer will call me to come to work next week. I’m not a valued employee.” These thoughts, in turn, can affect the way we feel about ourselves: “I am not good enough.” These are powerfully negative thoughts, and if we believe them, can shake us to our core.
It’s important to note that we are not our thoughts or feelings. Thoughts and feelings come and go, like waves. They come in strong, peak, and then fade. No thought or feeling is permanent and just because they happen to be, it does not mean they are a reflection of reality. If you experience unhelpful thoughts and negative feelings, first, notice yourself what you are thinking or feeling. Put distance between your thoughts and feelings. Naming them can be helpful. If possible, you might even have some fun by giving them an expressive name like, “the blue monster” or “the worry Ogre”. They are visitors, but won’t be staying with you forever. In fact, you have the power to kick them out! The point is to separate yourself from the unfriendly visitor and be conscious as to not let it control you.
5. Ground yourself.
One of the ways to understand anxiety–the uncontrolled, overpowering type–is to look as it as an inability to be in the present moment because one is so consumed with the worries of what is not-yet. Anxiety takes us away from living life to the fullest, here and now, to a place that is unknown. Grounding can help us bring back your attention to the present moment and become more aware of ourselves.
There are various ways to engage in mindfulness practices. Here, I will introduce a belly breathing exercise, that you could do practically anywhere in just 10 minutes. Slow and deep breathing has been found to have several benefits such as relaxing the mind and the body.
Step 1. Find a comfortable place where you can relax. Sit in a chair with your back straight and rest your feet on the ground. If you are able, you can lie down on a couch, bed, or even the floor.
Step 2. Place your hands on your stomach and take a big breath in while counting to five. Make sure you push your stomach out enough to make your hand move up.
Step 3. Hold your breath and count to three.
Step 4. Exhale slowly through your mouth and empty your lungs completely. Count to seven as you breath out.
Step 5. Repeat Steps 2 to 4 a few more times.