By Melody M. Ott
LCSW with Wellbeing Collective
I have been seeing more and more posts and messages from friends and family about how they can manage the ongoing anxiety that this pandemic is causing. Let’s face it, this thing is wreaking havoc on our lives, our economy, and on the health and well-being of our families, friends, and the world. I think the question is not how we get rid of the stress and anxiety about this. The question is how we cope with and tolerate it more effectively. In this time of COVID 19, our stress level is in a higher range than it was before, we have simply acclimated to it – like when you get into a hot tub and the water feels really hot initially, but then begins to feel comfortable – stress levels are higher and therefore our threshold for managing stress is lower – maybe you have noticed a tendency to lose your temper more quickly or become anxious more quickly?
Let’s step back for a moment and think about some of the stressors a person might be experiencing, because everyone is experiencing stress, however, it is impacting us each to varying degrees. Some of us are dealing with job loss or job uncertainty, some are dealing with homeschooling children and feeling ill-equipped, some of us are dealing with staying home – sometimes in an unhealthy home environment or with small children who do not understand what is going on, some of us find ourselves completely alone, some of us are dealing with other mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression, on top of the stress of the pandemic and they are finding their symptoms to be exacerbated, and let us not forget the hospital staff and other essential workers who are risking their health and well-being daily. This is certainly not a comprehensive list, and if you add your personal stressors to this list, I think it begins to paint a picture. It is okay to feel anxious and stressed. This is okay.
Knowing that this is a normal response to an unprecedented situation in our lives, we must not ask ourselves how we make it go away, but what we can do to cope with it. If we accept that it is here, it becomes no surprise when we feel it and if it isn’t a surprise we can go on offense about how to handle it – we can make a game plan. Being on offense simply means that we take control rather than allowing the stress and worry to control us. How do we do that?
Build a Healthy Foundation
People have shared with me that they have racing thoughts, others have shared that they have little to no motivation, others have shared that they have to keep busy or they begin to experience worry, still others have shared that they simply feel numb. Each person’s response to this will be different, but each one of us already has coping strategies that have worked for us in the past. We can start there. What has worked for you in the past, even if it isn’t working now, is worth noting, so go ahead and jot down some things that have helped you in the past (my list would include exercise, talking with friends, and reading). Of course, our old strategies do not stand a chance of working until we build a solid foundation on which to use them. What I mean is that most of us have had our routines completely upended. Our old “normal” is not the norm! To build a foundation, we need to get back into some routine and in order to do this, we need to evaluate a few things:
How is your sleep? Are you getting enough or too much? Sleep hygiene is a very important aspect of emotional stability. If you are getting too much, get up and move around even if you don’t want to – this might feel nearly impossible, but do it anyway. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, notice if you are napping during the day? Are you being physically active enough throughout the day? What does your caffeine intake look like? All of these things impact sleep. If you want more information, research sleep hygiene and apply some of these strategies to your situation.
What is your interaction with others looking like? Are you taking time to connect via the phone or internet with others? Connection and engagement are important. Join an online book club, church ministry, chat with friends and family. Isolation can lead to depression, and if you are struggling with motivation already, connecting with others can be a real challenge.
How is your physical activity level? If you were an exerciser before, are you staying active? If you weren’t, are you taking time for a gentle walk or stretch? Movement is important in stress relief.
How long are you spending in front of a screen? If your days consist of unending binge watching or internet scouring, consider limiting time in front of the screen. Limit the intake of news and media sources that incite fear. Even if your work has you on the computer all day, take breaks, read a book, do a puzzle, or do some other activity that will help you stay away from screens or at least take frequent breaks.
How is your eating? Are you eating too much? Not enough? What are you eating? Be sure you have an eating schedule that includes a variety of healthy foods. Limit caffeine and sugar consumption, which can exacerbate anxiety.
What does your daily schedule look like? If you answered, “what schedule?” consider making a schedule! You do not need to rigidly adhere to this schedule, but having a healthy daily routine that includes movement, healthy eating, time doing enjoyable things, time learning, time creating, and time connecting, can bring stability and consistency.
Is your mental health impacted in a way that you should reach out to a therapist? Most therapists are offering telehealth services which allow you to remain in your home while receiving the benefits of professional support.
Examine Your Thinking
Once we begin to lay a good foundation, we can explore some things we can do to assist with our thought process. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is based on the idea that our thinking impacts our feelings and our feelings impact our behavior. It stands to reason, then, that paying closer attention to our thinking could have a pretty drastic impact on our overall well-being. We know that anxiety, for example, might use pieces of the truth to hijack our thinking, telling us things like, “you are never going to feel okay” or “ why bother getting out of bed, you are just going to feel like crap all day”… or any number of other fear inducing statements. When we think this way, what feelings emerge? Feelings of fear, hopelessness, helplessness… I often hear from people that they don’t have any thoughts that they can identify. Even though it may seem like there aren’t any thoughts connected to the emotions, the thoughts are there and it may take some practice to become more aware of them. Here are some helpful tips on noticing the thoughts:
Start by noticing when big feelings arise, name them (there are often a few all at once) and then work backwards. What just happened? Was there a triggering event? Did that event cause you to remember a previous time where you experienced this feeling? If there wasn’t a triggering event, notice what was going on around you and see if you can make a connection to your thoughts.
Ask yourself if you have this emotion frequently. Is it happening around the same type of situation?
Notice thoughts that have nothing to do with a big emotion, just notice the thoughts that move through your mind every day. Sometimes just increasing awareness can help.
Keep a thought log and note the variety of things you have been thinking. Do this for a few days and take note of any patterns that arise in your thinking – is it generally hopeful, helpful, negative?
Once you complete a thought log, examine the thoughts.
Is the thought realistic - could this really happen, is it really true?
Does it make your life better to think this way?
Is this thinking something you want to possess - does it benefit you to own this thought?
Is it something that makes you like your situation or life better?
If you answered no to any of these questions, take a look at the thinking and reframe it. How can you see the situation differently? What is the truth and what is anxiety? What might be a different way to focus on this situation? Reframe the thought so that you can answer the questions listed above and say yes to all of them. This is difficult to do, but keep at it. It may take ten attempts before you get it how you want it. That is okay! - The more you practice the better you get. I like to start reframing by acknowledging the feeling, “even though I feel really anxious about the uncertainty, I know that…..” When you can begin to see things from a different perspective, it can allow you to manage the emotions more effectively. Not only that, but it helps to calm the emotional part of your brain down and re-integrate the thinking part of the brain. When your brain is integrated and working together, you can approach the world much more effectively.
Finally, find the joy. There is joy in this. It might be joy in seeing a bird outside of your window. It might be joy in listening to a great song. It might be joy in seeing the face of a friend on a video chat. Find joy in each day. This might take some effort. Be intentional. Anxiety can erase the good things sometimes. It may help you to keep a joy journal or fill your mirror with sticky notes of joyful events happening throughout the day, these can serve as a reminder when things feel overwhelming.
During this time of fear, anxiety, and stress, please take care of yourself. Remember that it is okay and normal to feel this way. There is no need for self judgment. There is no need to try and make these feelings “go away.” You can manage this! Make a plan… Remember to build a strong foundation for healthy thinking and living. Remember that your thoughts greatly impact your well-being, so reframe and challenge them when you need to. And finally, remember to find the joy. If you or someone you love needs additional support, reach out to a professional. We are here to help.