The coronavirus might be a physical health risk but it’s really important to acknowledge and support the potential impact on people’s mental health during this time too. Not just for those with pre-existing mental health difficulties but as a result of the potential affects of anxiety, isolation and financial hardship, on us all.
When we start to become more anxious than normal, it can become difficult to regulate our emotions effectively. I hope this blog helps provide comfort, advice and reassurance on how best to manage your anxiety and that of your loved ones, during this uncertain time.
Firstly, understanding anxiety and what drives it, can really help in reducing its impact. The more we understand something, the more empowered we feel. And right now is all about empowering people, rather than risk falling in to a state of panic or helplessness.
So what is anxiety?
Anxiety involves both a physiological and psychological response to perceived threat or danger. It activates our fight-or-flight response, which is the physiological reaction to prepare our body to either fight (the danger) or flight (run away from the danger), in order to keep us safe and ultimately help us to survive. In our ancient ancestors time, coming face to face with a big, grizzly bear whilst out hunting may have triggered this. However, today, it’s more likely to be triggered by a fast approaching car, about to knock us over as we cross the road. In both of these scenarios, anxiety is extremely helpful.
The fight-or-flight response sets off many physiological responses in our body. To prepare us with extra energy to fight, we experience increased heart rate and blood flow to the large muscle groups. In doing so, less blood is directed to our digestive system, which is what can cause us to feel sick, when anxious. To help prepare us to flight (run away from the bear!), our bodies want to make themselves as light as possible so that we can run faster; this is what causes us to go to the toilet more, when feeling anxious. Our pupils also dilate, so that we can see the oncoming danger more clearly.
However, this same physiological response is triggered in modern day society, by a whole number of other stressors, which often do not present with immediate danger. Ranging from work pressure, the stress of being a parent, social comparison (often heightened through social media), financial worries and risks to our health. Many of these things are what we are experiencing right now, as a result of this pandemic.
When we experience more than normal anxiety, the fight-or-flight response is activated too frequently, making it problematic. Therefore without learning affective coping strategies to reduce the fight-or-flight response, anxiety can negatively impact our physical and psychological health.
A lack of control and uncertainty…
A contributing factor to anxiety is experiencing a lack of control, often caused by uncertainty. With the current pandemic, this could include uncertainty over the prime ministers plans, our jobs and finances and how best to protect both our health and that of our loved ones. Uncertainty is often followed by fear, anxiety or worry. It is also worth considering that for some people these emotions can then manifest in avoidant, aggressive or selfish behaviours.
There is very little we can do with regards to solving uncertainty; it is simply part of life; there is and always will be uncertainty. It’s more about how we respond to it. For example, when we can’t control what is happening externally, we need to challenge ourselves to control the way we respond internally. This is where our power lies.
So next time you feel anxiety creeping in and you start thinking about all the things that are out of your control, think of what you can control instead. For example, you are in control of your actions. Whether that be washing your hands regularly, face timing a friend to help reduce loneliness, reading your favourite book to help lose yourself in the moment, cooking something nice for dinner to help provide a sense of achievement or getting creative, to help provide distraction, reduce stress and boost wellbeing.
Control doesn’t just apply to what you do either; it also applies to what you think. This is one of the key principles of mindfulness, which isn’t about controlling your thoughts but instead, about helping to stop your thoughts from controlling you.
Consider this for a moment. Life is made up of constant change; or you might like to think of it this way; change is the only constant in life. Everything else is impermanent. However, we as humans are naturally very resistant to change. And this is one of the reasons we struggle so much in our minds. Naturally our minds crave security and certainty; which means when we experience change or uncertainty, we feel unsettled.
Whether experiencing change in our external or internal (thoughts and emotions) lives, change is happening all of the time. However, if we can get more used to this concept and learn how to feel more comfortable with the idea of constant change, we can learn to experience true freedom of the mind. Learning and practicing mindfulness can help us achieve this.
Anxious thoughts bring us a way from the present moment and project us in to the future (which we can’t control). Therefore, an extremely helpful way of managing anxiety is through mindfulness as this psychological process purposefully helps bring our attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. This helps to reduce stress and anxiety, whilst increasing relaxation and peacefulness, amongst other benefits.
How can I start practicing mindfulness ?
A good place to start is learning some simple grounding techniques, which involve focusing on the here and now, one of the key elements of mindfulness practice. I believe that learning and practicing this skill is crucial in helping us cope better with the uncertain times we are currently experiencing.
One of the best grounding tools we have, is our breath. See if you can pay close attention to your breathing, following each breath all the way in and all the way out. Or you can count your breaths, one on the in breath, two on the out, ideally just up to a count 10, then starting again at one. You could also try breathing in for a count of 4, holding for 4 and breathing out for 4 (if you can increase the count of seconds for the outbreath, even better!). Keep doing this for 3 to 5 minutes (you could set a timer on your phone to help).
Another simple grounding technique is noticing 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. Noticing these small everyday things is also a great opportunity to practice gratitude, another key aspect of mindfulness.
Rather than getting ‘stuck in your head’, with anxious thoughts dominating your attention, see if you can drop your awareness in to your body. Where do you feel the anxiety? Perhaps you notice tightness in your chest or butterflies in your stomach. Direct your attention towards the physical sensations of anxiety and then bring the focus back to your breathing.
Focus on the gentle expansion and contraction of your abdomen as you breathe in and out. You might want to place your hand on your stomach to help feel this. As you’re focusing on your breath, it will be natural for thoughts to come and go. However if you can, each time you notice your mind has wandered, acknowledge where it has gone, e.g. to thinking, planning or worrying and then gently and without self criticism, direct your attention back to your breathing.
Another important part of mindfulness is the practice of acceptance. Often we push away difficult thoughts or emotions but this can intensity things further. Remember it is OK to be feeling anxious at the moment but it’s about changing the way we respond to the anxiety, rather that criticising ourselves for feeling it.
Mindfulness helps us invite difficulty in to both our minds and bodies, with a deep sense of acceptance and connectedness. If you are feeling anxious, instead of desperately trying to push the anxiety away and panicking about feeling anxious (making yourself more anxious!), practice saying phrases such as ‘hello anxiety, I can feel you, I know you are there’. Then, draw your attention to where you feel the anxiety in your body and then back to your breathing, as explained in the techniques above. In doing these three things, acknowledging the anxiety, noticing where you feel it in your body and then focusing on your breathing, anxiety naturally starts to ease.
Mindfulness can act as a powerful technique, to help prevent us from being consumed by our anxious thoughts and instead, provide us with a greater sense of control and empowerment.
For more mental health and mindfulness guidance, please follow @mindsfirst