Anxiety and covid-19
As I write this, we are entering the eighth week of lockdown in the UK and we are all experiencing varying levels of uncertainty, anxiety and perhaps other emotions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a therapist, I feel as though I have been on a rollercoaster of feelings myself as the weeks have gone on. I hope, however, that this has given me a deeper insight into how many of my clients must be feeling this way and, in turn, means that I can help them more.
The covid rollercoaster
If you have been on this rollercoaster too, the first thing I would say is that...this is normal! We are in abnormal times and our minds are searching for stability and an understanding of the situation. We try to make sense of life at the moment by scanning back through our lives to find similar scenarios which can give us information on how to cope now and in the future. The unfortunate thing is that none of us has that information. A pandemic has not, in our lifetime, happened on this scale so we cannot create a match.
This means that we can feel lost, out of control, under threat. Our minds launch us into the fight or flight response so that we are ready to run from this threat or fight it. Our bodies are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones which prepare our muscles to escape and survive. Those hormones can make us feel physically terrible! Our hearts beat wildly, our stomachs hurt, our breathing is difficult, we can have headaches, sickness... the list goes on. You might have felt some or all of these.
And these feelings can be intensified if you not only have an invisible virus threat to deal with, but also financial worries, family concerns, political uncertainty. Before you know it you can be in a whirlwind of worry and underlying panic.
How to regain control
So... if we have no way of finding a match in our lives which will give us a strategy to survive this invisible threat....what do we do? Well, the first thing to do is to realise what is in our circle of control and what is not.
If you were to imagine a cocoon around you, within which you had control, it would be filled with the things you can influence. For example, you can decide when to get up, what to wear, what to eat. You can choose what you read, or watch or listen to. You can choose how you spend your day, how you structure your day.
Outside that cocoon is the world and all the things which are not in your control. So, this might mean the virus, other people's thoughts and actions, the moon, the stars, the government. No matter how hard you try you are never going to be able to 'make' the virus go away or 'make' someone think a certain way. You can expend all the energy you like on trying to, but you are never going to be able to stop the tide from turning, the sun from rising or make cows bark.
So why spend all that energy trying when you could choose to direct it somewhere more useful?
Part of regaining control and sense in our lives means recognising what we can control and what we can't. Then, once we can recognise the truth in this, we turn our minds to those things and this gives us back a sense of certainty.
Once we have certainty in the small things we can begin to feel safer. Once we can begin to feel safer, our minds can allow us to feel calmer and stand down the survival response.
Build routine and create calm
In my experience, working with clients during this period and before, creating an environment of simple routine and connection with their needs and the world around them can make huge differences to mindset. By gaining control of the little things we can feel safer and begin to think more clearly. We can gain a new perspective on the situation.
To begin, bring yourself back to the simple things such as getting up, washing, eating breakfast - all actions which are in your inner circle of control. If you can break up your day into manageable sections which balance the practical with self-care then that will be a good step towards feeling less anxious. There are things we have to do such as care for others or work and there are things we can choose to do and which will add to our emotional and physical wellbeing.
We can replace endless trawling through articles and social media with more positive activities such as reading things which are neutral and which interest or entertain us, or maybe by being creative, learning or exercising. Bringing self-care into our lives sends the message to our brains that we are safe. If we can find time to stop and breathe slowly or immerse ourselves in something we love, then we must be safe in that moment. The more moments that we can create like this, the more time we are spending in a safe environment. The storm may be raging in the world outside, but in our own individual cocoons....we are safe.
If you can think of life at the moment as being a ladder we are climbing, then we want to make sure the rungs are as close together as possible. That way we can feel safe, take small steps and move forward steadily. Each small action you take control of is a rung - whether that be making a cup of tea, cleaning a surface or brushing your teeth.
"I don't have time for self-care!" I hear you cry.... Well, yes, you do. I remember a fellow therapist telling the story of a client who thought self-care was ridiculous and that she would never find the time for it. They made a deal that she would take five minutes extra for herself when she went to the loo (the only time she had for herself). She would give it two weeks and spend that five minutes reading or practising mindfulness; closing her eyes to think about the things in her life for which she was grateful, or something else that she chose to do.
When she came back two weeks later she was converted. She felt calmer, more grounded and looked forward to those oases of calm in her day. The only downside, she said, was that she seemed to be spending a lot of time in the loo!
So, it is possible and it will make a difference. At the moment your body is a container filled with stress hormones. Self-care is the plug which allows you to drain away the stress and replace it with so-called 'happy' hormones like oxytocin and endorphins. The presence of these hormones tells your mind that, here and now, you are ok, you are safe.
You are creating an environment of calm for yourself.
You can do this
It might feel as though you have lost control of the future right now, but the future does not really exist. We are creating our futures by living each moment to the best of our ability. It is this moment that matters. If you can manage each moment in the best way possible then that is good enough.
And remember, this time is temporary. We will get through this and we will be better and stronger for it. It is a rollercoaster, but all rollercoasters come to a gentle halt in the end and we can smile as we look back and see how far we have come. There is always a way. You can absolutely get through this time and if you need a bit of extra help from a therapist then we are here to support you. You can do this.
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