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30 Oct, 2020

How to deal with Covid-induced anxiety

What practical ways can we protect our mental health when we’re spending a lot more time at home and away from loved ones? How do we stop feeling like an island when our home and work lives are in the same place? What might we put in place to support ourselves in any times of change or uncertainty ahead? We put all these questions to psychotherapist and bestselling author Anna Mathur.

Health

What practical ways can we protect our mental health when we’re spending a lot more time at home and away from loved ones? And as you so aptly put it, how do we stop feeling like an island when our home and work lives are in the same place?

Here are some helpful tips to help protect your mental health at home:

  1. Set yourself some boundaries around work hours. Consider a time where you begin and end your working day.
  2. Leave the house before you start work. Spend the time you’d usually be commuting, out for a walk or a run. Get some fresh air and then re-enter your workspace.
  3. Ensure that you are talking to someone who isn’t work related, each day! You might feel ‘zoomed out’ but it’s important to maintain contact with those who support you.
  4. Be honest with where you’re at and how you are feeling with those who have historically been kind and supportive. You have to be more intentional about these conversations when there is less face to face contact, but it’s so important to have your feelings heard and validated.
  5. Take breaks away from your desk. Perhaps you might like to eat lunch at a table elsewhere if possible, or even outside.
  6. Check in with yourself each day. What do you feel, what do you need? Consider what small step you might like to take in order to meet that need.
  7. Schedule a meeting with your employer as an opportunity to seek the support or reassurance you might usually get in the office.
  8. See what wellbeing support is offered by your workplace. They might have protocol in place to offer additional support should you need it.

The big one - how can we deal with Covid-induced anxiety in general?

COMPASSION

Firstly, have compassion for yourself. When we feel fearful, we need compassion and guidance. Ridicule or criticism coming from others or yourself isn’t helpful. Whether those around you understand how you feel or not, try and cultivate some compassion towards yourself because it’s not your fault that you feel heightened anxiety right now.

It might be that you or someone close to you are immunosuppressed, at higher risk. Maybe you know and love someone who’s health is already challenged, and you feel terrified that this might impact them. You may have a history of trauma or anxiety, or a fear of losing someone close to you that has rushed to the forefront.

Whatever your experience, whatever is causing your anxiety, shaming and berating ourselves keeps us stuck. Not everyone will relate to your experience (although many will), but it doesn’t mean that your anxiety is less valid or your feelings less valuable and worth addressing. If you find yourself feeling frustrated, consider how you would reassure a friend, and try to use that supportive and understanding voice towards yourself.

LIMIT YOUR EXPOSURE TO NEWS

At the moment, it’s hard to wade the reams of coronavirus articles to learn of other newsworthy topics! You may find yourself glued to the TV or flicking between news apps, on the hunt for something that will reassure you.

However, when we feel anxious, we are less able to rationalise what we read, and more likely to overemphasise the negative. Nobody has specific, certain answers about the prognosis of the coronavirus, so many articles are full of conflicting speculation. You might find it helpful to abstain from watching or reading the news and asking someone trusted to relay any pertinent messages to you verbally instead.

Constantly checking for updates and theories fuels anxiety. As you find yourself opening a search window, pause, and ask yourself what you’re going to gain. Knowledge isn’t power when we are overwhelming ourselves with it. Searching for too much information, or searching in the wrong places can be disempowering, confusing, conflicting and frightening. Cut out the noise by choosing to stick to the facts: https://www.who.int/news-room/...

STICK TO GUIDELINES

Out of care for our own health, and respect of the health of those around us, it’s wise to educate ourselves on recommended protocol. We cannot sterilise our environment, but we can take simple preventative actions that are statistically known to reduce risk of experiencing any infectious illness. These are good techniques to instil regardless of what bugs are circulating at any time of the year. Current advice: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/hea...

If you are someone who is at additional risk to infectious illness, please do follow the official guidelines set for you.

These are the actions we have been advised to take by those acutely experienced and knowledgeable on how infectious illnesses spread. They will be looking to neither under-advise us, nor over-advise us. Their overwhelming focus and aim is to halt the spread of infectious illnesses.

LIMIT DISCUSSION

When discussing coronavirus with friends or family, some people’s opinion and approach will fuel your anxiety, and some will calm it. Limit how much you talk about it and when you do, choose to speak to those who are supportive and ground you. If you feel your anxiety levels increasing when discussing the virus, make an excuse to end or step away from the conversation. Discussing it with those who are also experiencing anxiety will likely reinforce your fears and increase your own feelings of anxiety.

MAINTAIN A HEALTHY ROUTINE

Eating well, giving yourself the best chance to get good sleep and adequate rest, and exercising in whatever way you most enjoy is brilliant for both your mental health and your immune system.

Consider any habits that could benefit from a bit of a tweak because perhaps they add to feelings of anxiety (e.g drinking too much caffeine or alcohol) and get support in addressing them if needs be. Again, this is a good thing to do for your future, let alone the current climate.

GROUND YOURSELF IN THE PRESENT

Feelings of anxiety are triggered when we focus on negative, future unknowns and uncertainties. The difficult thing is that we aren’t creating stories about alien invasions, they tend to be fears based in potential realities, that have not, or may not happen. The more we think about a fearful scenario, the more our body and nervous system will respond with physical symptoms of anxiety (such as increased heart rate, stress hormones, panic attacks). We can interrupt this process by stopping the whirlwind of our thoughts in their tracks.

There are many techniques that can help halt overthinking by shifting our focus from the unknowns of the future, to the realities of the present moment. Some of my favourite techniques are:

  • Count backwards from 100 in 3’s
  • Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste
  • Take a walk outside, breathe deeply and pay close attention to the things you see
  • If you have any physical feelings of anxiety, do ten rounds of grounding breaths to calm your nervous system. Breathe in deeply for four, and steadily exhale for a count of 6-8 (dependent on what feels most comfortable)
  • Utilising a guided meditation app such as ‘Headspace’ or ‘Calm’
  • Use these techniques as soon as you feel your mind begin to overthink or catastrophise. Practice them as you fall asleep. Use them when you don’t need them so that when you do, they feel familiar and instinctive.

CHECK IN WITH YOUR DECISIONS

Note the decisions you might be making for yourself or your family. If you notice that you are taking steps outside of the advice recommended, then consider whether the motivation is based on facts or fear. Maintaining your normal day-to-day life where appropriate promotes a sense of normality for yourself and those around you so stay connected with others. You might find it helpful to increase contact in an appropriate manner with those who have historically had a positive impact on you and your mental health.

And finally, what might we put in place to support ourselves in any times of change or uncertainty ahead?

MAKE PLANS AND THEN TUCK THEM AWAY

It’s always wise to have a contingency plan in place. A lot of anxiety is trying to consider how you’d respond in challenging times. Life is certainly known to throw the odd curveball every now and again, so having considered what you would do when something likely happens, will help reduce stress should you ever need to put things into action.

The important thing is that once you’ve considered your plan, tuck it away in the back of your mind, or on a piece of paper in a drawer. Look at your plan like the war bunker. It’s there, it’s available for when it’s called for. Let it be a reassurance that it’s there should you need it. Revisiting it, adding to it, playing it out in your mind like a film, extending it with ‘what ifs’ and overthinking will add to your anxiety.

BE MINDFUL OF ASSUMPTIONS

Be mindful of your assumptions. Assumptions that aren’t based on fact or rationality feed our anxiety. It might be that you find yourself feeling that everyone who has a cough or fever has coronavirus. Of course, exercise caution as advised. However, if your assumptions are negatively or unnecessarily impacting your decisions and feelings, then deal with them as anxiety fuelled thoughts.

FIND A MANTRA

Personally, I find it really helpful to have a phrase, sentence or ‘mantra’ that I can recall at times of anxiety or stress. I find it quite anchoring and comforting. My current favourite mantra is: ‘Everything is okay now. And ‘now’ is the only thing that is real’.

Here are some other ideas:

I will cross that bridge IF I get to it (the ‘IF’ is really important here as anxiety loves to inflate the statistical likelihood of things.

I let go of fear

I return to now

I am here

Feelings aren’t facts

INTRODUCE GRATITUDE

Challenge yourself to write a list of ten to thirty things you are grateful for. You might start off with the fundamentals such as family and your home, but the more you jot down, the more you are called to reflect on the things we take for granted, such as movement, sight, warmth, sunshine.

Return to your list when you feel like your mind is leaping ahead into the unknown. Gratitude draws our attention away from what could go wrong, to what is currently right. Gratitude brings perspective. It ushers us to look at the things in our life that give us joy, and when we think about these things, it makes us feel good! It helps anchor ourselves in the present moment, distracting our busy minds from getting carried away in the torrent of ‘what ifs’.

You might find it enjoyable to re-engage in an old hobby, distract your mind in the pages of a novel. Either way, explore ways to put your energy into what’s most important and what makes life worth living for you. Anxiety takes up so much of our energy, so it’s helpful to find other ways to use and distract this energy if we can, in things that feed and energise, rather than take from us.

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Anna Mathur is a psychotherapist and bestselling author. Keep up with her on her website www.annamathur.com and IG @annamathur.

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