Hello friends. As we continue to practice social distancing and stay at home, I wanted to offer some information for these trying times about how to weather the anxiety caused by COVID-19 and by life in general.
First of all, what is anxiety and what does it feel like in our body?
Anxiety disorder symptoms can be both emotional and physical. Depending on the type of disorder, the physical symptoms may vary, but all types involve feelings of extreme fear.
Symptoms emerge when your body’s sympathetic nervous system accelerates your reaction to stressors and causes the ‘fight or flight’ response commonly associated with anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (“GAD”) has been described as a constant state of dread, like something bad is about to happen, only you’re not sure what it is. It’s a perpetual state of worrying, a heightened sense that danger is around the corner, often manifesting in hypervigilance.
In the case of Social Anxiety Disorder (“SAD”), symptoms occur in response to impending or forced social interaction. One such symptom is agoraphobia. Agoraphobia (ag-uh-ruh-FOE-be-uh) is a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.
In contrast to the previously mentioned types, Panic Disorder (“PD”) symptoms may occur without warning, even without conscious anxious thoughts. Panic attack symptoms may include shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, shaking and chest pains. People may suffer PD in the middle of the night while they are sleeping due to ongoing anxiety or a history of trauma. In addition to causing feelings of dread and anxiety, panic attacks can sometimes mimic symptoms of a heart attack.
Anxiety can exhibit itself in various ways: insomnia, depression, fatigue, addictions (often used to self-medicate), or job or relationship paralysis exhibited in fears related to decision making. Anxiety can also cause illnesses – for example, constant anxiety can cause chronic stress which leads to cortisol dysregulation which can trigger insulin resistance and even diabetes.
The following strategies have proven to be helpful personal practices to manage anxiety.
1. Stay Connected
Talking to a trusted friend or family member is an important way to cope with anxiety. When we are anxious, our emotional resources often turn inward and we become fixated only on our own feelings. We tend to isolate ourselves when we really need others most. Reaching out and checking in with those close to you is a great way to manage our anxiety and it is often a win-win. We are fighting the impulse to shut down and isolate ourselves as we are building a bridge by checking in with loved ones. Sometimes just voicing our fears allows us to realize that some of our thoughts are unhealthy or irrational. If you don’t have a trusted support system help is always available 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
2. Keep Moving (or Get Moving)
Exercise is probably the last thing you want to do when your mind is in overdrive. Your mind might go to the worst-case scenario and you fear overexertion. But in reality, exercise is one of the best natural anti-anxiety solutions.
Physical activity raises endorphins and serotonin levels to help you feel better emotionally. And when you feel better on the inside, your entire outlook improves. Since your brain can’t focus equally on two things at once, exercise may help you take your mind off your problems. Aim for 30 minutes of activity 3-5 times per week. For instance, you can walk in your neighborhood while maintaining social distance or you can stream yoga, Pilates, and other workout classes to engage in at home. Any type of movement is a good start. I often say that something is always better than nothing when it’s positive!
3. Stop Feeding Your Caffeine Habit
If caffeine is your go-to drug of choice, it can actually make your anxiety worse. Caffeine may give you a jolt of energy, but it can also raise your heart rate and induce anxiety. To achieve moderation, try to cut back by halving your normal intake. Decaffeinated herbal teas can help calm your mind and your nerves! You can cut down on your caffeine using baby steps to avoid headaches and other withdrawal symptoms. Remember, something is always better than nothing!
4. Keep Your Bedtime
Even with schools out and many people currently working from home, we need to keep as normal a bedtime as possible. If you are dealing with insomnia, try to get more activity during the day so that you can get 8 hours of sleep at night. The better prepared you are to get a good night’s sleep, the better quality of sleep you will get. Keep your bedroom dark and cool and don’t use electronics in your bedroom at least 30 minutes prior to going to sleep.
5. Don’t Skip Meals
Sometimes anxiety causes feelings of nausea, but skipping meals can make your blood sugar drop. When this happens, your body produces more of a stress hormone called cortisol. Studies have linked excessive cortisol production to many autoimmune disorders such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
6. Live in the Moment
When we constantly think or worry about things beyond our control or in the future, we are prone to anxiety. We can’t control the future or others, but we can take each day, each situation, as it comes and be mindful of what is in and out of our control. When we give our emotional energy to things that we have no control over, we are setting ourselves up for anxiety. I like to remind my clients to focus on what is “in their boat.” I love the old but cheesy saying, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift. That’s why we call it the Present.” So live in the moment by not borrowing trouble from tomorrow or sorrow from the past. When we are not living in the moment, this is called dissociation. While it may feel good for a little while, it can lead to long term mental health issues.
When you feel that your mind is not present with your body, try this strategy to bring them back into the same space.
A study conducted last year by Baylor University found that people who pray to a God they perceive as loving and protective are less likely to experience anxiety-related disorders such as worry, fear, self-consciousness, social anxiety and obsessive compulsive behavior, compared to people in the study who said they prayed but didn’t expect God to provide comfort or protection.
In prayer we can live out Psalm 34:4: I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.
You can’t always find somewhere to kneel or even close your eyes and bow your head during a busy day. But you can always pray. Especially if you cultivate the habit of “breath prayers.” They are simple, short and easy prayers that can be spoken in a single breath and repeated numerous times throughout the day. The habit of “breath prayers” can make a huge difference in your life as they help you to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Examples of breath prayers:
"My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth."
I often pray this prayer of affirmation and dependence, from Psalm 121:2.
"When I am afraid, I will trust you."
Based on Psalm 56:3.
Please give these strategies a try and make them your own. If you want to talk further about treating your symptoms with a professional counselor, please contact me at Genuine Joy Counseling:
Wishing you and your families health and safety,