If you’re like me, you were taught to manage anxiety by being social. You were trained not to isolate, but to gravitate toward people and activities. You were taught to do the opposite of social distancing.
Now, the world has changed. This leaves people like me in a state of limbo. We were already battling the realities of life as we knew it. As if that weren’t scary enough, this new layer of fear surpasses even our biggest challenges. We don’t adapt to change easily on a normal basis, much less during a pandemic, so we become frantic.
You see, as an anxiety sufferer, I worry about everything. And often, I worry about things that will most likely never happen: diseases I read about, abandonment, passing out from a panic attack in a public place. Worries like these are common amongst anxiety sufferers.
My routine coping process has always been to remind myself that these concerns are likely not valid. Don’t get me wrong. It’s taken years of therapy to learn this. However, there has always been a light at the end of the tunnel.
Unfortunately, this current world crisis is different. No amount of rationalization can make it make sense. People around the world are dying from an illness that is highly contagious and very real, an illness that any of us could be inflicted with. It’s almost impossible to digest.
So how am I coping? Years ago, I learned a very important anxiety coping strategy that changed my life. That strategy is mindfulness, the act of staying in the present moment instead of letting your mind aimlessly wander. While we can’t control the COVID crisis, or minimize it to add the false sense of security that we all crave, we can take our minds to a healthier place.
When fears of COVID arise, I acknowledge them. But I then let them go. I’ve learned that the fear of COVID comes in waves. And it’s usually fueled by seeing people in masks at the grocery store or reading death tolls in the news. Yes, what I see and read is real, but how I react can also be real. I can be mindful of the present state of our society, while at the same time protecting my sanity.
I do this by going to a safe place (my home or my boyfriend’s home, or my car if I panic in the grocery store) and focusing on the “here and now.” When you think about it, for most of us who aren’t on the front lines, the present moment isn’t filled with chaos. (This is especially true in our homes, which is why I’ve chosen home as my go-to grounding environment.) Other than practicing social distancing by not having friends over, and for some of us, having children and spouses around all day, it’s much like our pre-COVID environment.
Once I’m in a safe place, I take my mind out of fear by honing in my five senses — what I see, feel, smell, hear and taste. These are all important aspects of the present moment. They aren’t emotionally charged. And they’re engaging enough to pull my mind out of fear. I then picture a balloon floating off into the sky with the word COVID written on it. This is my signal to myself that it’s time to come back into reality and detach from fear.
I’m not saying that it’s not important to be informed. It is. But it’s even more important to protect your own mental wellbeing. For example, it’s easy to scroll through your phone and read article after article about death, risk and other terrifying things. There are days when I literally paralyze myself based upon what I read because I get so scared. Please don’t do this. It will make your anxiety unmanageable.
I also rely on the people in my life that I’m closest to. If you’re isolated, take advantage of video platforms like Zoom. Use them to keep up your routine. For example, Spanish lessons are one of my most important coping tools. Because I can’t meet with my teacher in person, we are doing lessons on Zoom. It feels different, but it’s something to keep my mind occupied.
And be honest about your fears. I often open up to my boyfriend and my best friends about how the state of the world is affecting me. Though there really is no way to rationalize it, getting my fears out in the open helps me to process. It slows the hamster wheel in my head.
The other thing to remember is that our bodies are naturally programmed to go into “fight or flight” mode when we face fear. Your body doesn’t know the difference between real or perceived fear (i.e., what you read in the news). When this happens, your body does what it needs to do to protect itself. It prepares for danger by releasing hormones. Consequently, everything speeds up. Your heart races, your blood pressure rises and you breathe faster. This is anything but calming, right?
When anxiety takes over, your goal is to switch your body out of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and into the parasympathetic nervous system (your body’s calmer state). Make a conscious effort to do so by engaging in calming activities. For example, you could visualize yourself lying on your favorite beach. You could also do deep breathing exercises for a few minutes. Just make sure you’re engaging in diaphragmatic breathing, also known as “belly breathing.”
I don’t want to minimize this pandemic and say “this, too, shall pass.” It likely will in time if and when a vaccine is developed. But there’s no way to tell when this will happen, meaning you’ve got to learn to face uncertainty because life probably won’t go back to “normal” for quite some time.
But you can try to minimize your anxiety in the meantime. Be mindful. Practice self-love. And for goodness sake, take it easy on the news. At the end of the day, remember that you’re not alone. We’re all facing the anxiety of this crisis together.
Share your thoughts in the comments below. Are you struggling with COVID anxiety? What tools are you using to cope?