After spending the last several weeks talking to friends, family and clients, it is clear that anxiety and stress levels are collectively rising as we try to cope with this unique and constantly changing health crisis which is impacting all of us on many levels. As a therapist with 30 years of experience and an expertise in helping others to manage their anxiety and stress, I thought it would be helpful to provide the following information and advice with the hope that if you follow these suggestions, it will help you to manage your own anxiety. At this time, the best we can do is follow the guidelines that the Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/) is providing and practice managing our own fears. If we are somewhat successful in managing our own fears, we can be more helpful and supportive to ourselves and each other.
Coping With Uncertainty
Human beings are uncomfortable with uncertainty. We think and behave in a way that gives us the illusion that we are minimizing uncertainty by taking some sort of “control” over our lives and, pretending that things are certain. In reality, life is full of uncertainty. Anything can happen at any time and it often does, i.e. someone walking across a street and getting hit by a truck. For the most part, we can compartmentalize this idea (we can push it way in the back of our minds). However, with COVID-19, the uncertainty of life is in our face every day. The threat of illness, loss of loved ones, death, and financial problems is right there where we can see it and feel it. But these things are always true. So what can we do with the fear that this uncertainty creates?
Part of the answer lies in accepting the things we cannot control. That may sound like a simplistic idea but it is very difficult to do. When we can accept the things we cannot control, it gives us peace. In my experience, most of us resist the realities that we do not like or want to be there. This reality with COVID-19, and everything that goes with it, is a hard reality to accept. But it is reality. If we can try to practice accepting what is happening, we will save precious emotional and mental energy that we can then use to actually cope with this reality.
Facing reality and living in reality is a life skill. There is a saying that the “pain is in the resistance”. I like to say that life sometimes causes us pain but the suffering is optional. A major source of suffering is resisting life on life’s terms. So what do we really have control over in this major life challenge that we are facing? How can we minimize the suffering both in ourselves and our loved ones? Here is a list of things that may be helpful (they are not in any particular order of importance):
STOP Watching the News!
When I suggest this to people sometimes they say that they want to stay informed. Of course we need to stay informed, but where we get our information can really make a huge difference in our anxiety levels. The media (television, Facebook and some other Internet sites) are experts at emotional manipulation. There is money to be made in creating fear. It sells advertising. Get your information from reliable sources who do not profit from creating fear. The following are sources that are recommended:
- World Health Organization (www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/adviceforthepublic)
- Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/)
- Your local state Department of Health
- National Public Radio (www.npr.org)
Our minds are like undisciplined four-year-olds. The mind wants what it wants and when it doesn’t get it, it throws a temper tantrum. Our minds want to be in control of us. But the bottom line is that our minds are thought-making machines. Over our lifetime, we become over identified with our minds and think that’s who we are. But we are not our minds, we are the observer of our minds.
The majority of the thoughts are not helpful. Fear is easily created by the mind through negative thoughts that are projected in the future; also commonly known as worries. Worries are useless but create a lot of problems. Worries automatically trigger our brains, specifically the parts of our brains that are responsible for survival. Worries trick our bodies into believing that something dangerous is about to happen. Practicing mindfulness and meditation both help us to discipline our minds so we can use it for good rather than evil. The research shows that both mindfulness and meditation practices change the brain in significant ways and help decrease both anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment and letting go of any judgment that you have about it. You can observe your thoughts, your feelings, your body sensations. You can observe the information you are taking through your five senses; what you are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting.
Meditation is a practice that helps build the attention muscle and the choice you have over what you pay attention to. It’s a lot like exercise, but for disciplining the mind. Even if you have never meditated, you can start now. You can start with five minutes and build from there. There are many different apps that people are using, as well as YouTube videos. Pick whatever appeals to you.
Create a New Routine
Life as we know it has come to a screeching halt. The routines and schedules that we took for granted are gone. Whether you are working from home or just staying home, it is possible to create some kind of routine. The ideal routine will be a balanced mix of self care and being productive (whether it’s work or household projects), and connecting with others. You may have to be creative and think outside the box.
Self-care is a huge umbrella of thoughts and behaviors. Self-care will change from situation to situation and person to person. It’s like a finger print; everyone has a unique list of what constitutes self-care. We tend to be less likely to practice self-care in the situations where we are most stressed. This is related to the changes in the brain that says self-care is not part of our survival. But self-care has the potential to decrease our stress and anxiety.
For those of you who do not usually practice self-care, start to think about all the things you do that make you feel better. You can also start practicing asking yourself the question, “what do I need right now?” Self-care can range from lighting your favorite candle to taking a walk. It can be as simple as going to bed early or making a cup of your favorite tea. Create an ongoing list of all the things you do to take care of yourself and all the things you want to do to take care of yourself. Some of these self-care behaviors can be incorporated into your routine. Some self-care is for when you need comfort or need to have fun. Self-care meets different needs at different times. It doesn’t always need to have a meaningful purpose either. Bingeing on Netflix constitutes self-care for some of us some of the time.
Self-care can be physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. The only rule for self-care is that it should never be self-destructive.
Reach out for Support
It’s important not to get too isolated. Obviously if we are housebound, isolation is more likely to occur. But with modern technology, we can get support from family, friends, self-help groups, 12-step meetings, and mental health professionals, etc. Whether it’s a phone call to your best friend or a video counseling session, getting support is essential in coping with stress. Our connections with others is what keeps us grounded.
Focus on the Positives
Usually if you look hard enough and pay attention, we can find the good in any situation and we can practice gratitude. This helps us develop a better attitude and that is where we have the most control. Stress has two sources; there is the stress that we create with our thoughts and our faulty beliefs, and there is the stress of the actual life event that is happening. When we can change our thinking and challenge our faulty belief systems, we can lower our stress levels. But this is often hard work because our minds get into very strong habits of negative thinking. Whatever we focus on, grows. So if we focus on the positive, that grows and, if we focus on the negative, that grows. So do the experiment and focus on the positive; see what happens. It’s not easy, but what do you have to lose?
Often difficult life experiences are opportunities for personal growth. By asking ourselves what are we meant to learn, we can use negative life events in a positive way. The answer to the question will be different for each person.
When we take responsibility for ourselves by managing our fears, we become more capable of providing love and support to others. Fear driven behaviors and decisions create destruction to our self and others. Love driven behaviors create peace.
What we all need right now is acceptance, love and compassion for ourselves and each other. We are all doing the best we can.