Working in a hospital as a medical social worker has given me an opportunity to be at the forefront of this pandemic, and the complex emotions people are experiencing. Many individuals are feeling scared, worried and caught in an anxiety spiral about contracting the coronavirus (COVID-19) infection, and the possible health implications.
This blog post can guide you through some practical steps to help reduce your stress, and learn ways to better cope with what you are experiencing without going into an anxiety spiral.
Acknowledge your fear
The first step to managing your anxiety is to acknowledge your fear. It is normal to feel worried, scared and anxious right now. The coronavirus (COVID-19) infection, is something new, unfamiliar, and there a lot of unknowns.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) can cause high levels of stress, because your brain perceives it as a potential threat. Under stress, your mammalian brain takes over and you become anxious. When you get anxious, your amygdala (an almond-shaped structure in the middle of the brain that is responsible for keeping you safe) gets activated. Unfortunately, once you’re anxious, your brain can not differentiate between a real versus a perceived threat.
“When we don’t understand something that leaves us feeling like we don’t know everything we need to know to protect ourselves … that equates to powerlessness, vulnerability”David Ropeik
Instead of reacting to your fear, take a moment and push pause. Acknowledge that you are feeling fear. Next, identify the thought that is causing you to feel fearful or anxious, and ask yourself if it is true.
When you are anxious, it is common to have erratic and strange thoughts. Once you begin believing those thoughts, you may begin to start panicking and having an anxiety spiral.
If you stop and ask yourself if those thoughts are true and valid, you force yourself to redirect your attention to what is actually real, versus what is made up in your head. This process will help move you away from spiraling into anxiety, and more into a place of logical thinking.
By pushing pause and acknowledging your fear, you are giving your brain time to slow down. You move away from the anxiety spiral or “fight, fight or freeze” reaction, to a more calm and logical response.
In order to cope better with your anxiety and feel calmer, now is critical to practice self-care. Self-care is any activity that we do intentionally, in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.
“During this uncertain time, it’s important to keep up your self-care routine, to reduce the anxiety we store up in our bodies”Dr. Elissa Epel
When you are stressed, you are flooding your body with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which are your body’s biological response to fear. The hormones are designed to be activated only for a short period of time to keep you safe.
If your stress becomes chronic, these hormones remain in your system for much longer than they were designed for. Their constant presence significantly increases the risk of inflammation in your body. This leads to your immune system getting weaker over time.
To prevent this from happening, it is important to practice self-care and reduce your stress, anxiety and fear. It will bolster your immune system and your body will naturally fight off a viral infection.
Some simple self-care practices you can start incorporating in your life right now are the following: go on a mindful walk, spend time in nature, try a yoga class, call a friend, start journaling, read a book, watch a funny movie and focus on getting quality sleep.
Breathe to relax
Whenever you are feeling stressed and anxious, it is common to have shallow breathing. To change this, you can focus on your breathing which will reset the “fight or flight response.” In addition, deep breathing can prevent the onset of panic, and the unpleasant physical symptoms associated with anxiety.
Next time you are beginning to feel anxious, try square breathing.
Visualize your breath traveling along a square. As you follow the instructions to inhale, hold your breath, or exhale, count slowly to four on each side.
Try it now. Inhale up the first side of the square. Slowly count one, two, three, four. Hold your breath across the top. One, two, three, four. Exhale down the other side of the square. One, two, three, four. Then hold your breath across the bottom. One, two, three, four. After a few minutes of this, you should be feeling calmer and more centered.
Yoga to calm your mind
You can also do yoga which is an effective tool to reduce stress and anxiety. If you’re uncomfortable going to a yoga studio or gym, try doing a yoga video in the comfort of your own home.
Incorporating self-care practices in your daily routine will help you feel more relaxed, grounded and give you some healthy perspective, so you can respond in a more calm manner.
Focus on mindfulness & meditation
Mindfulness is a proven and effective way to combat your anxiety and fear around the coronavirus (COVID-19).
If you regularly practice mindfulness and meditation, this is the perfect time to start applying it to your day-to-day activities.
Short mindfulness activity
What I want you to do is the following, close your eyes, take 3 deep breaths and put your hand on your heart. I want you to check in with yourself. Ask yourself where you feel the anxiety and fear in your body. What is this uncertainty triggering for you? Continue breathing and feel your body firmly grounded and rooted. Remind yourself that you are safe. You will get through this.
New to mindfulness
If you are new to mindfulness and meditation, now is an ideal opportunity to engage in an activity that will help alleviate your anxiety and stress. Mindfulness practice encourages non-judgmental awareness, seeing things exactly as they are, with openness and curiosity.
When you’re feeling fear or anxiety, your thoughts and emotions are erratic. That is normal. Mindfulness helps you learn to focus on where you are at that exact moment, while you are breathing deeply.
“Whenever fear arises—whether triggered by a mysterious virus or not—we can stop and investigate it. We can learn to see it not as a monolithic feeling, but as a fleeting experience with movable parts—sensations, thoughts, images and so on.”Kelly Barron
To start a mindfulness practice, I suggest that you download an app and follow the free tutorials. My two favorite mindfulness meditation apps are Meditation Studio and HeadSpace. Both offer guided mindfulness meditations that are easy to use.
You will notice how remarkably better you feel once you begin a daily practice.
You can also get some incredible free resources from Calm, another one of my favorite meditation apps. They have put together a website with various resources to help you manage your anxiety about the coronavirus (COVID-19).
These resources include soothing meditations, sleep meditations, movement to help you relax, and even some supportive conversation prompts to help you connect with others. My favorite is a beautiful sleep story read by actor Matthew McConaughey. Try listening to one of the meditations or check out the sleep story tonight.
Connect with your friends and loved ones
During this time of fear and uncertainty, it is important not to isolate yourself. Personal relationships are crucial in maintaining perspective, improving your mood and a healthy distraction from your worries and anxiety.
If you are required to work remotely and limit in-person interactions, try connecting with your loved ones via video chats, and calling to talk to one another.
Focus on keeping yourself healthy
Keeping yourself physically healthy is an important part of alleviating your anxiety spiral over the coronavirus. Working as a medical social worker in a hospital, we are all following the simple safety tips from the CDC.
- Wash your hands. Using soap and water, lather up for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol. This is especially important after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
- Cover your cough or sneeze. Use a tissue that you can throw away.
- Keep your hands away from your face, especially your eyes, mouth, and nose.
- Stay home if you’re sick. Chances are you don’t have the virus, but officials advise staying home if you don’t feel well. And, if you suspect you may have coronavirus, call your healthcare provider.
- Stay away from sick people. Chances are they don’t have the virus, and this helps keep your immune system strong.
Unplug from social media & the news
Even though you may be eager to keep up to date with all the news and information, it is better to limit your intake of news and social media. Typically if you are an anxious person, your anxiety will elevate when you are constantly looking at social media and the news. To reduce your anxiety, it is important to unplug and focus on self-care.
Instead of obsessively reading about the outbreak, come up with a plan and stick to it. Perhaps you set an alarm and allow yourself 15 minutes to read trusted media sources in the morning. After your 15 minutes end, you stop and move along with your day.
Seek professional help if you need it
If you are someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression in the past, it is possible that you may find the coronavirus pandemic particularly overwhelming.
I know that I have been feeling a lot more anxious lately, and I am practicing all of my self-care rituals to keep my stress from spiraling into panic.
There is nothing wrong with seeking help if you have tried alternative methods to manage your stress and anxiety. Please reach out to a mental health professional if you notice that your anxiety symptoms begin to interfere with your work, maintaining close relationships, socializing or taking care of yourself and others.
It is normal to feel anxious and worried, especially because we are all living with a very real, yet uncertain health threat. Though you might feel helpless, you can focus on integrating coping skills to help you feel calmer and more grounded.
Acknowledging your fear is the first step to assess why you are feeling the way you are. Start practicing proven self-care techniques like breathing, yoga, mindfulness and meditation. These activities will go a long way in reducing your psychological distress, and enable you to make it through the stress of the coronavirus (COVID-19), more effectively.
Most importantly, continue your normal daily activities, try to maintain some perspective and cultivate connections with your loved ones. We are all in this together and we will get through it.
I would love to hear about how you are coping with the stress and anxiety during this uncertain time. Please share with us your tips on how you are keeping yourself healthy (mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually), during this unusual time.
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