Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. Feeling nervous and worried is part of the human experience. How many times have you felt your stomach drop or what my parents-in-law like to call “bubbles” in your tummy before an important meeting or event?
While we all experience anxiety at one point or another in our lives, many people have anxiety disorders and suffer more than most. Anxiety is a very wide term and covers many different types of anxiety. If you find you are asking yourself, “Is this normal?” I can tell you: YES IT IS! Normal anxiety and anxiety disorders are much more common than you think.
An estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their livesNational institute of mental health
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is often a symptom of other disorders such as PTSD, social anxiety disorder, panic disorders, etc. When I refer to anxiety in this post, I mean the general feeling of worry, fear and unease. Anxiety can be mild to severe and the feeling is very common.
Anxiety can arise for many different reasons, often quite personal and relevant to the individual. In a previous post, I discuss WhatsApp anxiety—what is WhatsApp anxiety? It’s what I call a very specific anxiety I feel involving unread texts… does that sound familiar to you?
One of our first reactions to anxiety is to do whatever we can to get rid of it. We often self-soothe and develop unhealthy habits in order to do this. Some people drink, do drugs, self-harm—I would eat. When I start getting stressed and anxious I want something sweet or something unhealthy. It makes me feel much better and I temporarily forget about what’s making me anxious. The relief is so short-lived but the actions so detrimental to health, that I knew had to develop healthier coping mechanisms.
As you know if you’ve been reading my blog, therapy helped me a lot and helped me learn how to cope with anxiety. It was one of the main reasons I started going. I couldn’t figure out how to deal with my feelings and it got to a point where it was too much and affecting my daily life. Along with therapy, when I did my 10 Day Happiness Challenge in the summer, I learned simple ways to feel happy instantly. I found that a lot of those things were helpful in quelling my anxiety and I’ve been using these tips throughout the pandemic.
How can we manage anxiety?
Anxiety is an almost universal problem. Some of us feel it more frequently and severely than others. I always found it hits me particularly badly at work (and before I started working, at school). It was important for me to learn how to manage anxiety at work and in my personal life.
In this year I faced a new anxiety, as have most of us. When news of the spread of coronavirus started in January/February I recognised it was horrible but I never thought it would reach us in the UK or Dubai where my family is. I thought that there was no way our world leaders and health practitioners would allow it to spread—this virus was preventable and containable.
Fast forward 8 months later and we are living in an apocalypse (ok, bit of an exaggeration!). I am a big fan of dystopian films, but I never expected to experience anything like them in real life. At first, I was ok. I was just shocked by it all. I was disappointed in how the world failed to contain the virus (some places worse than others). But I liked being at home, I was safe and my family was safe. I thought I was fine, but after 6 months it started getting to me.
Limit your information
When everything kicked off in the UK, I started checking the news on my phone obsessively. Every day I would turn on the BBC to watch the daily briefings. If I woke up in the middle of the night I would check the news. Whenever I woke up in the morning I braced myself for bad news.
I realised this was unhealthy and I had to curb the obsession because it was putting me on edge. I imposed set times to check the news: once in the morning and then when the daily briefings were on in the afternoon. I also only limited myself to credible sources: if it’s not on BBC/CNN, etc. I don’t read it or believe it. I get a lot of my news from Twitter and there is a lot of unverified information on it. I always fact-check and avoid reading things from a non-credible source.
Top tip: If it’s in a WhatsApp message don’t believe it until you find a credible source for it. My favourite WhatsApp coronavirus rumour is this raw onion one:
Keep In Touch
I was listening to an episode from the podcast “All in the Mind” and the subject was about how essential being touched is. Studies have shown that “hugging releases a mix of anti-stress chemicals that can lower the blood pressure, decrease anxiety and help sleep”. In the episode, they mentioned research has found that those who hug regularly are less likely to catch a cold than those who do not!
One of the most difficult aspects of this pandemic has been isolation. Many people live alone, many people have had to self-isolate. It’s extremely important not to lose touch with family and friends. Even if you can’t touch them and they’re far away, staying connected is important to our wellbeing. I’ve taken this time to talk to some people I had lost touch with and every connection has made me stronger every time. Keeping in touch with the people you love is vital.
Top tip: If you’re not sure how to keep things interesting with family/friends on video chat try doing a trivia quiz. There are great tips online on how to do this and I guarantee it will be super fun and will leave you feeling great!
Being cooped up at home makes it very hard to keep up with physical activity. At the start of lockdown, I spent weeks just sitting on my couch and I felt extremely lethargic. I went from regular gym sessions, spin class and walks from work to home to absolutely nothing. Physical health has a major impact on our mental health. I knew keeping active helped me before and I had to incorporate a routine into my week.
I don’t think I need to tell you the benefits of physical activity, but in the same podcast I mentioned above they said that you can get the beneficial effects of physical touch with exercise. Don’t look at exercise as a way to lose weight, think of it as a way to reduce stress and control anxiety instantly. Just as brushing your teeth is important, consider exercise a necessary part of your weekly routine. It is a form of self-care!
Top tip: If you find it hard to get motivated, keep your activity simple. Go for a 5-minute walk. Do a 5-minute yoga routine. Try to commit to some form of activity 3-4 days a week. I started my morning with this simple yoga routine:
Make Some Me-Time
This seems like an easy one. “I get me-time all the time, I watch my favourite shows every evening”. We all enjoy watching TV and unwinding after work but think of something that you really enjoy but don’t get to do very often. Is it reading a good book? Watching a movie? Taking a bubble bath?
Set aside some time to do something you love or a hobby on your own. When you start feeling anxious and stressed take a break and do something that makes you smile. When you do it don’t worry about the time you take and focus on being in the moment. `It will help with anxiety and boost your mood.
Top tip: Pair your me-time with another routine activity like exercising or finishing work. I now have a routine where I take a hot bath every time I go for a long bike ride on the weekend. It motivates me to get on my bike and work hard because I can look forward to a long soak!
Yes, I know you’ve heard this one many times. I used to scoff and roll my eyes when it was suggested. Ok, yes, breathe—I know I need to do it. But what I didn’t realise is how effective it is if you do it properly and consistently. When I am overcome with anxiety when I feel like I’m going to have a panic attack I stop and breathe. I have a breathing app on my smartwatch which is helpful, but you don’t need anything. Maybe just a timer.
The key is focus. Remember that the time you set, could be 1 minute or 10, is for you alone. Keep all distractions at a minimum. Lock your door, tell others not to disturb, put your phone on silent (not vibrate!). Whatever you need to do can wait—this is your time to focus and reset. Give your breathing your full attention. This helps us slow our heart rate and control our breathing which results in reduced anxiety.
Top tip: The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique helps me when I feel particularly bad and out of control. Acknowledge 5 objects in your surroundings, touch four things around you (best if different textures), focus on three sounds you can hear (can be any sound–a TV playing in a different room, sirens), smell two things around you (pillow, handwash, your own skin) and taste one thing (taste water, the taste of leftover lunch or coffee in your mouth). Do it slowly and mindfully. When we start panicking grounding ourselves can help dial the anxiety down.
Accept Your Anxiety
We are living in the middle of a pandemic. No matter how much people will try to go back to “business as usual”, it is not business as usual. We are experiencing something we never saw coming in our lifetimes: over 1 million people have died because of it. These are horrifying times and some of you may feel it more severely than others and that is fine. It’s ok not to be ok.
Up until a few weeks ago, I felt like I was coping well. Thank God, no one I know has yet been seriously ill from coronavirus. I felt far removed from the chaos. Many people around me don’t seem worried and are carrying on like it doesn’t exist. Two weeks ago was the first time I actually cried and started panicking. When Boris Johnson made his speech about new restrictions on 22 September I was hit with a strong wave of anxiety. The numbers the week before were about 1,000 cases a day and on that day it was over 5,000. Some of my husband’s friends had tested positive. It felt like it was creeping closer to me.
It was the first time I felt really scared. It made me think, how will things look in 3 months time? Will someone I love get very sick? My husband told me my thinking was not helping me and I need to move on. I felt a bit ignored and invalidated.
To cope with this existential dread and intense anxiety and fear of the future, I accepted it. I thought “ok, I feel scared and I’m panicking. The numbers are increasing rapidly. Of course, I’m panicking. Of course, I am having these thoughts. But that’s all they are—thoughts. I just have to accept them as I would a passing raincloud on a sunny day.”
Do I still feel scared? Do I still panic? Yes, I do, but I don’t let it send me spiralling or immobilise me. I acknowledge the feeling, “I am having the feeling of panic”, “I am experiencing anxiety” and accept it. When I look at it from an objective perspective it stops my mind going a million miles a minute and I can calm down. The feelings themselves won’t solve anything and aren’t helpful, so I don’t dwell on them. I acknowledge they exist and I move on.
Ask for and Accept Help
Many of us (me included) want to put up a strong face and pretend we are fine. We don’t like to admit our weaknesses and shortcomings, but we need to understand everyone has them and it’s ok! It is highly likely that more people you know are suffering from anxiety than you think, especially now.
Open up to your friends and family. Be honest with them and tell them what you’re feeling. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about and nothing to hide. Chances are they can relate to how you feel and are going through the same thing.
There are tips on how to control anxiety instantly and many things you can do to achieve calm. But they don’t always work and may not be a long term solution if your anxiety is severe. If it feels too overwhelming and is interfering in your daily life, you may need to consider getting professional help. Speak to your doctor or find a therapist. Everyone suffers from some sort of mental health problem, you are not alone and it’s ok to ask for help.
If you are in the UK, the NHS has some great resources. IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) is a psychological therapies service, check this website to find what services are available to you. You don’t have to have a diagnosed mental anxiety disorder or any disorder to seek help.
Anxiety UK provides access to affordable therapy services and resources. You can become a member for as little as £40 a year. I’ve never heard of this service until I researched this post but it looks impressive for the price. They have free workbooks and resources here.
I wrote this piece more for my own mental wellbeing because my biggest challenge has been controlling my anxiety and stabilising my moods. I’ve been working on different methods which have helped me on this rollercoaster so far. There are many more ways to cope with anxiety, this list is by no means all you can do!
What have been your go to methods of dealing with anxiety in COVID-19?