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How to reality check in a pandemic

Keeping it real amidst COVID-19

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Anxiety is a part of normal life. Humans are programmed to deal with a certain amount of anxiety on a regular basis.

Similar to stress, a healthy amount of anxiety is what drives us to do our best, whether it’s studying for a test, getting regular checkups at the doctor, or thinking through an important life decision.

We all have anxiety at some point. But for many of us, it’s situational and temporary. But, what about when anxiety is enduring, or we can’t seem to shake it? With the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s very easy to let feelings of uncertainty lead to feelings of anxiety. Unchecked, the anxiety can then lead to feelings of panic- which can turn into a full blown fear response.  This is upsetting for many of my executives who are accustomed to feeling like they have control over lives and their circumstances. This pandemic, however, makes us all too aware of how little control we have.

How do we keep things real amidst COVID 19?

We all have situations that, no matter what you do, seem to cause your nerves to completely fray. Situational anxiety is a specific type of anxiety that occurs during unfamiliar situations or events that make us so nervous that we lose control of our ability to stay calm.

For some this situational anxiety might be the result of public speaking; for others, it could be speaking an opinion in an unfamiliar setting, attending a networking event or making small talk with new acquaintances, or even a first date.  Still for others, it’s a fear response to something unfamiliar like standing in a public place, trying something new, or visiting someone unfamiliar.

And most recently, there has been an incredible spike in situational anxiety around COVID-19 and the constant changes presently occurring in the world.  

What does situational anxiety feel like?

Situational anxiety can cause both a mind and a body response, triggering physical as well as emotional symptoms.  These can include:

Nervousness

Irritability

Fatigue

Worry

Shaky hands

Headaches

Muscle tension

Chest pains

Sweaty palms

Rapid heartbeat

Shallow breathing

Sweating

Sound familiar to anything you might have felt recently when reading the reports of COVID-19 infection rates, increasing death tolls or the rising economic crises? 

It is important to recognize that situational anxiety is very personal and people may experience different symptoms from one another. It is important to realize you are not going “crazy” and indeed you have good mental health. Anxiety around the COVID-19 pandemic is a very appropriate and realistic response.  

How do we relieve situational anxiety?

Not only is situational anxiety uncomfortable and frustrating, but it can have real consequences. It can hold people back in their careers, affect personal relationships, and may even lower self-esteem.  But there’s good news: there are ways to cope with situational anxiety.

STEP 1

The first step in addressing situational anxiety is to notice changes in your body and behavior.  If you notice yourself getting a headache, your chest tightening, or you are feeling irritable, make an effort to pinpoint what you were doing, what you were thinking about, and/ or what was occurring prior to those feelings. Answer these questions:  Did you just binge read a bunch of reports on COVID-19? Did I just have a marathon session watching the news or have CNN/Fox News playing in the background all day? Were you talking with your in-laws about their fears of contracting the virus? Or are you concerned about the time to “shelter in place” and whether you and your family will have enough toilet paper to last?

STEP 2

Next, give yourself a reality check that the feelings of anxiety are normal and that everyone’s behavior or mood changes when they feel this way.  These situations, ones that feel completely out of control, lead to physical discomfort and can cause stress and anxiety, and recognize that these feelings can make our heads and bodies hurt.  Once you’ve given yourself a reality check, begin to recognize the anxiety and the fact that your feelings are normal, so you can now help yourself relax. 

STEP 3

Third, talk with a friend or family member about what is causing the anxiety. Is it fear of the unknown? Inability to predict the future? Being off your schedule? Not being able to exercise and alleviate stress because the gym is closed? Uncertainty about the future since your retirement account is dwindling?  

Talking with others and doing more fact-based research about what is bothering you will not only clarify what the actual problem is but will give you the opportunity to find accurate information about what to expect. 

If you continue to have anxiety symptoms, use a stress reduction technique to help alleviate the feelings.  One of the most effective methods include breathing exercises, guided imagery and the reassuring physical presence of a friend or significant other. Pay attention to what you can change. Turn off or limit news consumption. Only listen to reputable scientific sources. Be mindful of knee jerk reactions you might entertain like firing your broker or pulling all your money out of the market and stashing it under your mattress.

If your anxiety becomes so intrusive that you are unable to participate in appropriate and necessary activities, or if it is so chronic that it prohibits you from having a healthy, albeit socially distanced social life, reach out to your physician for guidance. Signs that you may want a professional opinion include an inability to maintain healthy sleep habits, abnormal changes in appetite (such as binge eating or refusing to eat), the use of substances as a coping mechanism, or if you experience a change in your ability to focus and concentrate and you feel your mental functioning to be compromised. 

Anxiety is a natural stress response to things that are dangerous, things you fear, and things you can’t control. Being aware of the anxiety and mindful of  its causes, allows you to implement practices that can help alleviate that anxiety. By labeling what you are experiencing, normalizing it, and providing yourself with approaches to combat the physiologic symptoms (e.g. relaxation techniques) you are not only building your resilience to face THIS pandemic, but also giving yourself the tools to work through anxiety-causing events in the future.

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