Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari
KEEP CALM & CARRY ON: MANAGING ANXIETY DURING THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC
From countries entering in and out of lockdown to constant news updates detailing the latest infection rates, it’s little wonder that many of us are feeling overwhelmed by the disruption Covid-19 has brought to our everyday lives.
During these uncertain times, it’s perfectly natural that many of us are feeling more anxious than usual. In fact, a recent report by the Office of National Statistics found that 47% of adults in the UK have suffered high levels of anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic. And with a potential second wave of coronavirus, a recession and an employment crisis on the horizon, it’s likely that are our anxiety levels are only going to rise over the next few months.
Whether your anxiety has gotten worse since the outbreak of coronavirus or it’s something that you’re experiencing for the first time, below are some healthy ways to take control of and manage your anxiety.
WHAT IS ANXIETY?
Anxiety is an emotional and physical reaction related to the possibility of a threat or feeling that something bad is going to happen to us.
Fear and anxiety are interlinked and both share the same physical sensations. However, fear is an immediate reaction to a known or definite threat (such as being followed at night), whereas anxiety is a response to the possibility that something bad will happen (such as a plane crashing when you’re on it).
A feeling of a lack of control plays an important part in fuelling feelings of fear and anxiety. When people don’t have a sense of control or know what to expect from a situation, they are more likely to experience anxiety and fear. When we experience anxiety, several things are happening at once in our body and mind.
· The mind: We might experience repeated negative thoughts about bad possibilities that could happen to us due to the thing we fear.
· Physical reaction: We begin to sweat, our heart rate and blood pressure increases and we can feel a little shaky and short of breath.
· Behaviour: We have trouble concentrating, relaxing and sleeping. We also might change our behaviour as a result of the anxiety we’re feeling, such as avoiding an activity or person that makes us anxious.
But anxiety isn’t an exclusively negative thing. It can be a positive force that helps us focus or perform when we need to and is a normal function that helps us survive. The brain can sustain 20 minutes of anxiety and the raised level of alertness this brings. After this, it can have a negative effect on your health and leave you more susceptible to tiredness, sickness and depression.
When fear and anxiety stop you from enjoying your usual everyday activities, it’s time to seek professional support to help you manage it.
SIMPLE STEPS TO HELP MANAGE ANXIETY
Talk to your loved ones
A problem shared is a problem halved. So if you’re feeling anxious, don’t bottle your feelings up, talk to your loved ones about what you’re going through. Take the time to sit with your feelings and remember that what you’re experiencing is acceptable and valid. By communicating how you’re feeling, you’re letting out your inner voice, which can help you make sense of your situation.
Remember: it’s OK not to feel OK! You’re not alone in this. By opening up to those closest to you, you can let them know how they can help you through the hard times.
Use positive mantras
You’re the product of your thoughts, so to help prevent being overwhelmed by feelings of fear and anxiety, try replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Practice repeating simple one-sentence mantras like “I’m ok” or “I can handle this” whenever you’re experiencing moments of anxiety. Repeating mantras like this will give you the courage you need to face your anxiety head on. With practice you’ll be able to approach all manner of situations with a positive outlook.
Remind yourself of past achievements
If your anxiety is holding you back from going about your day, remind yourself of a time when you were anxious but you still managed to achieve what you set out to do. By focusing on your past achievements, you can re-engage with this same mind-set and adapt it to your current goals. Remember: you’re brave and you’ve got the skills to achieve your goals. Don’t allow your anxiety to let you forget this.
Pinpoint where you feel anxiety in your body
The fear and anxiety you feel can be mapped to specific parts of your body. When you’re feeling anxious, ask yourself where you feel the anxiety sitting in your body. Is it in your stomach? Do you feel in in your legs? Wherever anxiety sits in your body, take a mental note of it. Pinpointing the parts of your body anxiety affects can help the brain organise itself during moments panic. Then take 5 deep breaths to the affected areas to slow you down and ground yourself in the moment.
Learn breathing techniques
Breathing techniques can help calm you down when you’re feeling anxious. One technique I often tell clients to try is to light a candles and hold it close to your mouth before taking a deep breath in from the stomach. Then, focus on exhaling very slowly so that the candle stays lit before repeating the process over again. Alternatively, rub a few drops of frankincense essential oil into your hands and breathe deeply into them. Repeat this 5-6 times and let the essential oil work its relaxing magic.
Whether or not you consider yourself a champion karaoke crooner, singing is a simple way to soothe anxious brains. Singing is so effective at reducing anxiety because it activates a different part of the brain that anxiety does. These two parts of the brain can’t work at the same time, so singing along to your favourite song is a pitch perfect way to help your anxiety levels drop.
Humming is effective too. When you’re feeling anxious, try taking a deep breath in and exhaling with a deep, long hum. Repeat this process four times. Humming acts like white noise for overstimulated brains and will help your brain regulate itself.
When you’re feeling stressed it can be all too tempting to curl up on the couch, but exercising can really help keep anxiety at bay. Why not try jumping jacks, outdoor sport or dancing around to your favourite song? Getting your blood pumping can help you release any pent up tension you may be holding in your body. And if you can exercise outside, all the better. Studies have shown that getting between 15-20 minutes of daily exercise in the great outdoors is a great to relax and burn off stress and anxiety.
Keep a diary
Keeping a diary lets you document your feelings and what’s going on for you at specific periods. As well as writing about your anxieties, you can give shape to your fears by drawing them too. This activity regulates your feelings and by framing your experience, separates it from the self. Keep track of your thoughts and feelings in your journal and over time you may begin to notice the tell-tale events that trigger your anxiety.
For some people a messy and disorganized environment can really overwhelm the mind. As the old saying goes: a tidy house leads to a tidy mind. So if your mind is overwhelmed with anxiety, it can be very helpful to keep your surroundings as neat, tidy and minimal as possible.
Stick to a routine
Having a structured and active daily routine helps reduce feelings of anxiety. This is because maintaining a routine gives you a greater sense of control over your environment and your feelings.
If anxiety wreaks havoc with your sleeping pattern, try putting a calming nightly routine in place and swap your TV or mobile phone screens for a good book instead. Why not consider starting your night time routine as early as you can so that you give yourself plenty of time to get settled and be present with your feelings before you hit they hay? It could help guarantee you a great night’s sleep.
Limit screen time
It’s easy to think that sitting in front of our favourite TV programme for a few hours is a harmless way to relax after a busy day, but it actually does the opposite by overstimulating our brains. To reduce anxiety levels, try to keep screen time to an absolute minimum – especially in morning and evenings. Avoid screens for at least two hours before going to bed and keep them out of your bedroom so that you can be present in your nightly routine before going to sleep.
Using the above tips will help you manage your anxiety in many aspects of your everyday life. Normalising and accepting your anxiety will help you come to terms with the corresponding feelings surrounding it and reduce shame.
Be mindful that if you feel that your fear or anxiety is affecting your relationships, your daily behaviours, or is causing you to avoid aspects of daily life altogether, reach out for professional help.
This article was written by couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, therapist supervisor and has been the Chair of Imago UK since 2013.