This has been an unprecedented week for the whole world with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping us sheltering in place. Never before have we faced this degree of uncertainty and fear about the future. The world looks very different from anything we could have imagined even a week ago and this has a huge impact on our mental health.
While we take dramatic steps to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also need to take decisive steps to manage the increase of anxiety and fear in order to stem the tide of what could be a tidal wave of mental health crises.
It is natural that we will experience all of these emotions, but if not dealt with in a skillful way, we run the risk of mental health crises that could lead to even more suffering and need for health care supports during a time of stretched resources.
As a therapist trying to figure out how to support people during this time of crisis, I have been grateful for the internet to be able support clients with video counselling sessions and reach out by email. This is the first time in my career as a therapist where everyone is talking about the same event, and all about the heightened levels of anxiety and fear.
Therapy cannot take away the anxiety but it can help us to develop a tools to manage it skillfully and encourage us to make a commitment to use those tools.
Here are some strategies that I practice myself and recommend to others:
1. Recognize that anxiety is a healthy response to uncertainty, but can be kept in check.
We shouldn’t expect to eliminate anxiety, which is impossible. Anxiety is an adaptive emotion to uncertainty and motivates us to heed the call to protect ourselves and others. However, we don’t want to allow anxiety to be the only emotion available to us, even during this time. We might notice that there can be other emotions like calm, interest, joy, curiosity, care, gratitude, etc.
2. Know the difference between fear and panic.
We can fear the uncertainty for the future but also be aware if that fear is giving way to panic. Pay attention to any racing thoughts, shortness of breath, feeling closed in, and other physical symptoms that may indicate panic and take active measures to ground yourself. Take slow deep breaths, distract yourself with games, talk to friends, orient to objects in the room. Grounding helps us to come back to a feeling of being “safe enough.”
3. Use mindfulness skills to be with anxiety.
Mindful awareness of paying attention to the present moment can be one of the most useful skills to manage anxiety. This can be practiced in moments of just stopping what you are doing and listening to what is happening in the body and mind. If we stop to listen, we usually know what to do. We can slow down the breath, relax the body, engage in balanced self talk, not over identify with the anxious thoughts. Most importantly, with mindfulness we can engage with whatever we are doing the present moment and this in itself reduces the intensity of anxiety.
4. Keep a regular routine in your life.
What we do affects how we feel. We need regular activities in place and a sense of routine to feel grounded and purposeful in our day. Make a schedule that includes tasks to take care of yourself and others, engage in nourishing activities, rest, exercise and sleep at usual hours.
5. Prioritize good self care just as you would hand washing
We know that healthy routines for physical hygiene have a significant impact on our public health. Perhaps we can think of self care as a public health service for mental health. Each of us can do our part to bring down the level of anxiety and encourage others to do the same. Take yourself off social media if it is feeding your anxiety. Or if you can’t do that, do your part to share ways that you are managing anxiety and fear. It will only help others.
6. Get a good night’s sleep
Last but not least, do your best to get a good night’s sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene as best your can and try to get 6-8 hours of sleep a night and nap during the day. It is normal to feel tired and exhausted from the emotional energy of fear.
7. Talk to someone
Talk to a friend, confidant, or therapist. Having a supportive, compassionate space to talk about your fears, without judgement, can be very healing. Know who your supports are and don’t hesitate to reach out for help. We cannot do this alone.