And I have some tips that might help you manage yours, too.
Long before the year 2020 and the science-fiction reality of a raging global pandemic, an unapologetically dystopian political agenda and straight up murder hornets, I was already an anxious person. Whether it was just your garden-variety social anxiety and shyness, or an irrational fear of zoo tigers getting loose in the city and hunting down small children at the playground, I knew how to be worried about things. Short of giving you a long list of “reasons why” I ended up with such a shaky disposition, suffice it to say, therapy has taught me a lot about what life-circumstances contributed to being the type of person that would be worthy of the nickname “safety officer” by my siblings. The “why” doesn’t matter as much for the purpose of this story as the “so what did you do about it?” I’m going to get to that…
So, while I was already extra sensitive to your normal, everyday life events like minor health scares, difficult conversations with…anyone and basically any kind of disruption to my carefully curated daily routine, the world has certainly thrown a lot of new challenges my way in 2020. Yes, indeed. But I’m not alone, this time. And I’m actually not over-reacting about this stuff.
I remember the exact day and time that the Coronavirus arrived in my county. I remember it because reading the headline precipitated an immediate and strong panic attack; with all the physical symptoms — heart racing, chest tightness, dizziness, stomach upset, flushed face, tunnel vision. Anyone who has experienced one knows how uncomfortable they are. It honestly feels like you are dying and no one could convince you otherwise. But, because I had experienced a few panic attacks before, I immediately recruited all the tools I’d learned over the years to calm myself down and avoid an unnecessary ER visit — close eyes, breathe deep, turn off technology, lay down, pray. Slowly, to my amazement, the tingles dissipated, my breathing finally calmed and I realized I was, in that moment, safe, albeit very unsteady. I struggled to fall asleep that night, but laying in the dark and focusing on my breathing was a quiet enough place to rest. I woke up the next morning with a new, higher level of base anxiety, and an assignment; to go back to the basics of how I knew I needed to care for myself in times of high stress. And I’m going to share those basics with you, too. Because they were so graciously shared with me.
Okay, so it has been nearly 9 whopping weeks since that day and here we still are. It would be redundant to say that even after the initial fear of a potentially life-ending virus making its way through my neighborhood had become an acceptable reality, these last few weeks have introduced even more new and terrifying reasons to reach for my anxiety — job loss, financial insecurity, potential food (and toilet paper) shortages, disastrous government failings, growing community uproar…the undeniable reality is that these are the kinds of circumstances that bring up new mental health struggles for even the steadiest of us. I mean…who isn’t feeling completely freaked out right now? Perhaps we should start by all being honest about how we feel. That’s what my therapist would probably suggest.
So, who has been feeling anxious?
Who has been feeling worried?
Who has been losing sleep?
Who has been possibly coping in sketchy ways but like…who the heck cares cause we’re all just trying to get through this insane moment in history without coming completely unhinged?
If you raised your hand to any or all of these questions, I’ve got some really effective tips for dealing with your new-found mental anguish that just might make sailing these exceedingly stormy seas a little less…terrifying. Full disclosure: I’m not a doctor or a counselor. I’m just a regular person, with a long-established history of freaking out about little and big things. And I’m here to help. We’ll get through this, honey. Here’s how I’m doing it:
Tips for Managing Your Anxiety During a Pandemic and Everyday
- Breathe Deeply: Apparently there is a right and a wrong way to breathe if you want to be chill. This is something I learned from a retired marine as he was taking my vitals at the Urgent Care down the street from me last summer, when I started having full-blown panic attacks and had no idea how to deal. Apparently for those of us who struggle with high-stress, anxiety and/or panic, there is a type of breathing called “Combat Tactical Breathing,” in which you breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for 5 counts and then breathe out for 6–7 counts. This is a similar practice to “Box Breathing” and various other practices but dang, those just don’t have the same badass ring to them as “Combat Tactical Breathing.” At first, when you start practicing your tactical breathing, it can feel really uncomfortable and forced, but I promise, if you keep doing it for more than a minute, it starts to work, and before you know it, the elephant on your chest is gone and the room stops spinning. Deep, lateral breathing through the ribs and belly is a super useful tool to have in your kit, and it may be kind of boring and you can’t buy it on Amazon, but it works.
- Ditch Judgement: So, one of the most frustrating components of anxiety is that it can and will feed on itself until it gets so big you feel you’ve completely lost your control of it. It starts off small: “Dang, I’m feeling worried. I’m feeling shaky,” and then you just have to judge yourself for feeling that way: “Ugh, I don’t want to feel this way. Why are you so fearful? Why aren’t you tougher? You’re a real coward, aren’t you?” and you’re off down a dark, cavernous rabbit-hole of doom. Judging yourself for feeling scared especially when you have every right to feel the way you do, will only amplify your discomfort. Instead of judging yourself for being completely human, try validating your feelings. “Gee, I really understand why I would feel scared, right now. This is hard. This is scary.” And even though you don’t want to feel anxious, you’ll be amazed how much lighter you’ll feel if you don’t add self-loathing to the mix.
- Write it Out: Anxiety is often considered the plight of the intellectual. Those of us with busier-than-average brains can often get caught in our own heads, sometimes dreaming up new and exciting projects and developing big ideas, but in less ideal circumstances, our imaginations-gone-astray can lead us through doomsday scenarios that are so outrageously far-fetched and unlikely that we would laugh if we actually said them outloud. Or scream. But either way, they’re almost always just ridiculous. The point is, when I notice that my thoughts are racing, the surest way to find calm is to get a pen and paper and just start writing. Sometimes I will literally write: “What am I afraid of?” And then streamline-of-conscious babble comes pouring out onto the paper and by the end of it, I realize I’m actually okay. And I always feel better. Come to find out, I’m pretty good at talking my way out of fear, but the written word holds me accountable in a way my mere thoughts could never do.
- Talk it Out: Another somewhat obvious but not-to-be-understated tool for dealing with anxiety is to talk to someone about it. My strongest recommendation would be to seek out a professional like a therapist, counselor or religious leader to help you navigate your feelings. But if you don’t have access to any of that, talking to anyone is better than trying to hold it in and manage on your own. Maybe you call your mom, or pick a friend to share daily “self-care” updates with — I do all of the above. And let me tell you, its all a huge piece of my ongoing anxiety management practices. You are not alone and talking to others helps you to regularly remember that.
- Practice Acceptance: A dear friend once told me that trying to force away your anxiety (or any other unwanted emotion) was like trying to move a 500-pound boulder out of your living room. You really don’t want the boulder to be there. What an ugly, inconvenient boulder! It’s embarassing and totally ruining the aesthetic and it’s just in the way. Come to think of it, that boulder is totally ruining your life. It absolutely must go. You must move it. Now. There is no other option. So you push it from every angle, you try to break it up, lift it out, shove it behind the armoir. It’s not frigging budging. Because unless you are that huge guy from Game of Thrones, you ain’t moving a 500 boulder by yourself. So, what are your options? Basically, you learn to just sit with it. Accept that it’s there. You maybe wish it wasn’t, but are you going to let it totally ruin your life? What if you just went on about your business and let it be there? Could you find a way to take some enjoyment from your life even if you couldn’t do anything about it? Yeah, because what other option do you have? Eventually, if you stop focusing on it, wishing it would be gone, planning how to remove it, exhausting yourself to do the impossible, with time, the boulder will just go on it’s own. It will! Funny how it works. Moral of the story is: you can’t force yourself to stop having anxiety. There is no magic trick. There is no “on/off” switch. I tell myself on days when my anxiety is high: “Hey, you. I see you. I’ve got a lot to do today, so you’re going to have to just come along for the ride.” And then I just go about my day and try not to feed the beast. It works.
- Move your Body: Nothing too flashy. When I’m feeling especially awful, a walk is my magic bullet. Nice and long, but not too fast. I walk at a Birkenstock pace, which is to say, not so fast that I need my sneakers on. Get that deep breathing going, don’t listen to music if you can help it. Just listen for birds, leaves blowing in the breeze, the sound of your feet hitting the trail or pavement. Practice mindfulness in your movement. Just be where you are and know you are safe in that moment. That’s my favorite fitness ritual these days. And that’s coming from an absolute gym rat fitness junkie. Take it easy! (…she said to herself, because she needed the reminder, too.)
- Get Spiritual: And last but certainly not least, I’d be remiss if I neglected to include the importance of practicing spirituality in the quest for attaining freedom from my anxiety. For me that has looked like studying buddhism and practicing meditation. It has meant attending church services at the amazingly progressive and inclusive Methodist church down the street (now enjoyed via livestream from the comfort of my bed.) I pray, I write to God and try to practice surrender when I struggle to have faith. It means learning some of the tenants in the new-age “A Course in Miracles,” with my friend who always has crystals and Tarot Cards for me when I am feeling a little wigged about for whatever reason. Ultimately it means the acknowledgment of the unknown and appreciation for a power greater than myself. It gives me a break from having to be God, and honestly I was doing a rubbish job of it anyway. A counselor of mine will often remind me: “Fire yourself from the job of playing God.” And in order to do that, I have to invite in something greater.
In summary, when I am feeling anxious in my regular life, or now, because I don’t know how the Coronavirus will end, and I don’t know if last October, when my parents visited from Florida — was that the last time I would get to hug my Dad? And how will I ever feel comfortable sending my kids out into the world again when this is all over? Will it ever be over? Whenever I start to pretend that it is my job to know any of those things, I do my best to use the tools above to try and manage my fear. I acknowledge that I am safe to feel my feelings — deep breaths — and that any physical sensations that might arise are just meant to alert me to whats under the surface, or behind the curtain — that big ass boulder that I was never capable of moving on my own, but that ‘just is what it is,’ and I say out loud something like: “Thank you, God for those scientists you have put in charge of solving this crisis and thank you that you didn’t give me that job. Oh, and please give our leaders the wisdom to navigate us all out of this mess and the courage to comfort a worried planet” and other stuff, like that. You’ll find what works for you, too.
Alright my fellow-humans, I’ll leave you with this — my favorite quote on the topic of experiencing hard emotions, like anxiety, sadness, grief, fear, anger — from Pema Chodron: “You are the blue sky, everything else is just the weather.”
Be well and just let the weather pass, my friends. And rest assured, it will. You are not your emotions. You are the glorious blue sky, and you are steadfast through any storm.