COVID-19: handling stress, anxiety and uncertainty
The most common emotional challenges of COVID-19
If you’re feeling stressed right now, you’re not alone. The current situation with COVID-19 can feel pretty scary. It’s constantly changing, and it involves loss of freedom, and loss of connection with friends and loved ones. It’s very natural for feelings of sadness, fear and overwhelm to arise with all this.
Some of the most persistent emotions, which seem to be almost permanently present for many of us right now, are anxiety and uncertainty.
Anxiety: Even if you haven’t yet been personally affected by the COVID-19 virus, you may fear getting infected, or worry about the safety of your loved ones. You may feel anxious about getting the supplies you need. You may be concerned about money or your job security. Anxiety is characterised by constant worrying, churning things over and over in the mind. There is often a tight ‘knot’ in the stomach, or tension in the body.
Uncertainty: There seems to be no way of staying completely safe right now, and no definitive answers to all the questions. If you or a family member gets the virus, what symptoms will you have? How fast might it escalate? Will you need a hospital? Will there be room for you, if you do? Will things ever get back to ‘normal’? Uncertainty can make us feel powerless and terribly unsafe. We may become hyper-vigilant, constantly seeking information, trying to feel more in control.
Fortunately, there are tried and tested ways of reducing feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, and combating the underlying stress and overwhelm. Just a few simple techniques can transform the way you meet the situation.
Dialling down anxiety: acknowledge and breathe
Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling, designed to alert us to the possibility of danger, a bit like a smoke alarm. Usually, we’d seek a way to fight the danger, or flee from it – but neither of those options are possible in this case. So the most common reaction is to just try pushing anxiety as far away as possible.
The trouble is, the brain doesn’t like us trying to ignore our alarm system. The more we try to push the anxiety away, the more stress chemicals get released into our bodies… which in turn can make us even more anxious.
The solution is to give anxiety something different: acknowledgement and recognition. This calms it down. It’s totally natural for our alarm system to go off when confronting an abnormal situation. And our adult self can tolerate that, and live with it. Practice saying to yourself: “Ah yes, I expected you to be here, Anxiety. I know you have my best interests at heart. It’s OK, I can handle you. We’ll get through this together.”
It can also be really helpful to take a couple of minutes when you’re anxious to breathe slowly and deeply. Because our breathing, when anxious, is naturally fast and shallow, getting your body to breathe slowly and deeply sends powerful signals to the brain that 'all is well'. It can have an almost magical calming effect on the mind. Make sure that the out-breath is longer than the in-breath. Many people find that ‘7-11 breathing’ – seven counts in and eleven counts out – is a helpful rhythm.
Dialling down uncertainty: create routines
Sitting with uncertainty is enormously stressful for most people. We can find ourselves yearning for clarity, for control; endlessly searching the internet or checking the news.
However, we actually have a ‘mental muscle’ that enables us to tolerate quite a lot of uncertainty in our daily lives. For example, we generally get into a car and set off calmly on a journey, ignoring the awful possibility of a crash or accident.
We do this by focusing on small actions and routines that we know will be helpful, such as fastening a seatbelt, keeping to speed limits, and getting the car regularly serviced. There is something about doing what we can in small, predictable ways which is inherently calming. It helps us ‘tune out’ the uncertainty of the bigger situation.
Applying that same mental muscle to the current situation means creating small, predictable routines for yourself each day. The more we can focus on small helpful actions, the better we can sit with the larger uncertainty. Some of the most helpful things for everyone right now include:
- Create a regular structure for your day: try to keep to consistent times for getting up and going to bed, for eating, and for work/entertainment periods. Schedule just one or two news updates per day, and never just before bedtime.
- Move your body, daily: make time for some regular gentle exercise – a walk or jog or bike-ride outside, or some gentle stretching or yoga at home.
- Reconnect with nature, daily: spend some time outdoors each day if you can – in a green space, if possible. If not, open a window and listen to the sound of the birds, or feel the touch of the wind or sun on your skin.
Easing stress and overwhelm: kindness
In any stressful situation, it’s very normal to find it hard to concentrate, to become irritable and impatient, to find ordinary tasks overwhelming. We may tell ourselves: “I shouldn’t be feeling this, I should be more in control, I should be managing all this better”. But this kind of harsh and judgmental self-talk just increases the stress we’re under.
To ease the stress, the first task is to be kind to yourself. Remind yourself that it’s normal to feel like this, that you’re not alone in your struggles. If you find yourself emotionally overwhelmed, use that as a signal to take a ‘self-kindness break’. Do something that feels comforting or enjoyable, such as reading, cooking, watching a comedy, or making something.
You may need to take self-kindness breaks quite frequently right now – and that’s OK.
In the longer term, one of the most effective ways to ease persistent stress is to be kind to others. Studies have shown that those who help others and support their communities are significantly happier and less stressed than those who focus on their own self-interest.
In this situation with COVID-19, even if you can’t assist others physically, you may be able to reach out to someone with a phone call, or donate to a food-bank, or try to be a calming influence on those around you.
Reaching out to help others can make you feel less powerless, and give you a sense of meaning and purpose in these difficult times.
Hopefully, you will find some of these strategies helpful. If you find you need further help to cope with feelings of stress and anxiety then consider talking to a qualified counsellor for extra support. Online and telephone sessions are available.
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