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The Antidote for Pandemic Anxiety

In some ways the constraints of quarantine have brought many people closer together while keeping them farther apart.  Not sharing space hasn’t stopped connection. New friendships have been forged. Former ones have been rekindled.   The pandemic has also resulted in many people becoming all kinds of acquainted with what may have been a new or former foe:  anxiety. 

Concerns about health and economic fear have left many minds reeling.  Anxious thinking is a mental a top that won’t stop spinning. 

Anxiety is a complicated beast. I often explain to clients that in your brain, anxiety perceives a threat that you may or may not encounter fifty blocks down the street.  It preps your mind and body for action in the here-and-now as if the threat is on the block you are currently walking, staring you in your face all up in your personal space. 

Anxiety has a strong biological basis and can often physiologically:  restlessness, fatigue, muscle tension.  It also hijacks a person’s thinking.  People who are feeling anxious may have ongoing apprehension.  They frequently carry around foreboding fears that the worst-case-scenario may become a reality.  Sometimes anxiety comes out sideways through irritability.  When someone is preoccupied and mentally mired down with fear, the result can be limited reserve for more thoughtful relational responses.  Anxiety can negatively impact your ability to secure the shut-eye you need.  When the noise of the day is no longer around to drown out the volume of anxious thoughts, some people struggle to fall or stay asleep.

Managing anxiety is not a simple straightforward process, but there are actionable steps you can take to fight back.

  1. Go to the mindfulness gym. (this one is open in all states, even during quarantine).  Mindfulness is learning to harness the power of your attention.  Walking your attention to the present moment protects you from reeling about your unchangeable past or forecasted future. Focusing on what you hear, smell, see, touch, and taste in the moment can anchor you to your “right now.”
  2. Exercise on a consistent basis.  Physical activity can prove to be a powerful antidote to anxiety and can help take the physiological edge off of symptoms.  There is something powerful about giving your system a reset and opportunity to expel nervous energy.
  3. Curb the caffeine.  This amazing, awful drug that is part of a daily routine for many does little to help someone struggling with anxiety.  It is designed to help spin you up, which is the last thing you need when you are already feeling too tightly wound.
  4. Don’t suffer twice.  If you find yourself fortune telling about the future, fearing something horrific, tell yourself to wait manage the hard until you absolutely must.   If problematic circumstances do arise, you will have less energy and mental bandwidth to respond to a bad situation if you deplete yourself by rehearsing it on repeat in advance.  In the event that the forecasted fear does not come to fruition, you will regret the loss of valuable time and energy that you budgeted for your anticipatory anxiety.  Don’t pull your umbrella out before it starts raining. 
  5. Play the “If, Then” Game.  When we are anxious we tend to overestimate how difficult something in our future may be and underestimate our capacity to cope.  It’s not a winning combination.  The skew of the math can leave someone psychologically in the red.  It can be useful to play out feared, imagined scenarios in your mind and follow them with an honest evaluation and response to what you can do if something difficult plays out.
  6. Schedule time to worry.  The words “don’t worry about it” do zero for someone who is experiencing anxiety.  Zilch.  Sometimes the minimization inherent in the phrase makes things worse.  Instead, setting up constraints about worrying and scheduling time in the future to sit and mentally spin can paradoxically provide relief.  Put it on your calendar:  5:00 – 5:30pm – date with worry.  This strategy can help to let you live your life a little bit mentally lighter outside of those scheduled minutes.
  7. Breathe.  During a spell of sharp anxiety your body has you primed to fight, freeze or flee.  You can’t use your thoughts to cognitively will your heart to stop racing, but you can enlist the help of your parasympathetic nervous system to slow things down.  When it comes to managing anxiety, your breath is all kinds of powerful.   Sit down and begin to breathe in through your nose to the count of four, hold your breath for four beats, breathe out through your mouth for four moments, hold your breath for four more, repeat.  Your belly should be moving in and out.  Your shoulders shouldn’t be bouncing up and down (this is a sign your breath is still really shallow). 

Throughout the pandemic, people have come to talking more openly about their experiences of anxiety and panic.  Seeing that the anguish of anxiety is widely shared has left people less scared to speak about their own struggles.  Those who have spent much of their lives wired with an anxious bent, may be saying, “See, this anxiety business is all kinds of awful, isn’t it?”  It’s more than “worrying.”  It is cognitive noise that keeps you from hearing anything else that is being said to you.  It is distracting.  It is draining and depleting. 

Authentic conversations about anxiety have an important place, but take care to not become a sponge for anyone else’s panicked evaluation of an environment.  Emotional contagion can quickly activate and amplify an anxious response.  Set boundaries.  Find the nearest exit (conversational and/or physical) if you recognize that the temp on your anxiety thermometer is starting to shoot straight up in close proximity to someone in your sphere. 

Anxiety is an adaptive response.  It has helped keep the human race running for a long time.  It is important that we have an anxious response when there is a real threat, because it helps to prime our bodies to respond appropriately.  Without anxiety, our brains and bodies wouldn’t get revved up to react if we were being attacked.  We are designed to stay alive, to self preserve.   When wires and signals get crossed in our brains, the anxiety switch doesn’t always shut off at the right time.  When your system is on overdrive, you do have agency to take steps to take the edge off of the anguish. Calculated moves can be made to help bring your body and mind back online. 

Don’t Be Anxious.   Take the action you need when you are.  Then, Just Be.


May 20, 2020

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