These are to say the least, surreal times. None of the things we may have taken for granted previously feel “normal” anymore; eating out with friends/family, going to the gym, taking a trip on an airplane, going to school in person, visiting and having family gatherings – all of these things and many more now feel as if they come with a risk that feels difficult to ignore. Will we get exposed? With every little sniffle, cough, or body ache which usually would be brushed off with barely a second thought, many of us now instead find ourselves wondering if we are possibly coming down with COVID-19.
If you then factor in the degree of political and social divisiveness we are experiencing nationally, it can be overwhelming. Many of us are feeling tense, uneasy, and on edge – anxious. So how can we cope and how can we support others in our lives that are feeling the same way?
Step one: Understand what happens when we are overtaken with anxiety
Anxiety can manifest itself in many ways. It can disturb our sleep, our dreams, our concentration, our memory, our mood, our physical health. It may feel like a vague sense of unease and discomfort, a sensation that one can’t quite put one’s finger on. But the feeling doesn’t go away and we feel exhausted – physically and emotionally.
Some people attempt to cope with these feelings by ignoring what is going on around them and resorting to denial, going on with “life as usual.” Others turn to numbing themselves via substance use in attempt to alleviate feelings that are experienced as intolerable. Some people become more irritable and become angry at things they would usually not react to. Yet others begin to experience physical signs and symptoms, including headaches, sleep disturbances, sensations of shortness of breath, dizziness, even palpitations and feelings of panic. These are just a few common presentations. It is important to acknowledge that every person’s experience is different, and people attempt to cope in the best way they know how to.
Step two: Know what to do if you are overwhelmed with anxiety
There are alternative, positively adaptive ways to deal with feelings of anxiety – ways that can not only help you but can possibly help you help others in your life as well, and you may find them to be surprisingly simple to implement.
- Start by noticing your feelings and acknowledging them. Understand you are experiencing a very human (and common) reaction to unusual circumstances.
- See how your body is reacting. If acute feelings of anxiety happen in public, it can make us feel incredibly unsafe, but also hyper alert. We can start to notice things like our heart beating faster, a feeling of difficulty breathing or chest tightness, feelings of dizziness, or even fears that we might be dying. Our brains can cause our sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” system) to react to our thoughts. We have a powerful tool we can use to combat this: taking steps to focus on slowing ourselves down.
- Make an effort to slow down. A good way to slow down is to breathe mindfully. Take 10 slow deep breaths; inhale deeply and slowly through your nose to the count of ten, then exhale slowly through your mouth to the count of ten. Repeat 10 times. Notice how you feel after doing this. It can be quite helpful to have a trusted person we can share the thoughts and feelings within the moment; somebody we can talk to right then and there to distract ourselves from focusing on our physical sensations a “safety” person.
- Ground yourself. We can also do something called “grounding” through using our five senses, and an easy way to remember this is to look at your hand and your five fingers. The order is not the most important, but it can be simplest to do it in the following sequence: look around for five things you can see and say them out loud (or under your breath). Listen for four things you can hear and say what they are. Notice three things you can touch and say each thing as you touch them. Notice two things you can smell and say what they are. Finally, taste one thing (it can be whatever you taste in your mouth) and say what it is. The key of this exercise is to distract yourself from your distressing thoughts and associated feelings, and bring you back into the moment, into the present.
- Organize anxious thoughts. You can work in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) interventions. Take a blank paper and divide it into four sections. Stop, step back, and observe. Notice and write down the thought you were thinking when you began to feel anxious and what your automatic belief about it is, along with how anxious it makes you feel on a scale of 1-10. In the next column write down what you feel is the evidence for this belief being accurate or true. In the following column write down an alternate explanation for the belief, and in the last column, write down how anxious you now feel on a scale of 1-10 after thinking about the alternate explanation (a highly recommended and FREE website that provides great resources, including templates, worksheets and workbooks with examples is https://cci.health.wa.gov.au/). The key is to help yourself to see that while your unhelpful thoughts connect to your feelings, they do not reflect fact and when you change your thoughts your feelings too can change.
Step three: Help others to understand what you’re feeling
It’s important we let the people in our lives know that we are going through and being open with your family and friends about how you are feeling can be quite helpful. It can help to reduce feelings of shame or isolation and can even serve to start a conversation and a realization that they too may be having a similar experience.
Since many of us are feeling the same way, the best way we can support each other is to communicate with each other, to not “brush off” or minimize other people’s feelings by saying things like “oh, you’re ok” or “relax, you’re fine.” Instead, offer to sit with them, acknowledge that it must feel difficult or scary to them, and let them know you are there for them. Then you can ask them if they would like you to offer some things that have worked for you and then discuss the information you have learned about anxiety and coping with them as well!