North Carolina is starting to get back to work. Our favorite restaurants and recreational facilities are starting to reopen. The beaches and parks are accessible again. Since the state continues to have a large number of active cases, this remains a phased approach and many are continuing to work from home and to shelter in place. While this can be an exciting time, the economic reopening can also create anxiety, especially since the number of cases continues to climb and we don’t yet have a vaccine. This article will provide some helpful tips on managing anxiety as more businesses start to reopen while the pandemic continues.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the brain and body’s natural reaction to any potential “threat”. Activities that can induce anxiety may include riding a roller-coaster, dealing with an upcoming work deadline, or managing one’s health in the face of illness in the community. Anxiety is our body’s natural response. At the same time, what we tell ourselves about the experience can increase or reduce anxiety. For example, if you are on a roller-coaster and think of it as a fun and exciting experience, you will interpret your body’s response as excitement or joy.
Symptoms of Anxiety (Individuals experience anxiety differently and may experience some or all of these):
- Rapid heartbeat
- Muscle Tension
- Rapid breathing
- Stomach upset
- Feeling Lightheaded
At times, the natural response may be to shrink one’s world in an effort to decrease anxiety. We tend to avoid what makes us anxious. For example, even before the lock down, some individuals would manage their anxiety by staying at home or not going out much. As we venture out more during phased reopening, some people may feel that this expanse of activities and their world is challenging. Some may refrain from being around others due to fear of germs. While it is important for us to continue social distancing, it’s becoming clearer that there are some safer ways to interact with other people such as being at least 6-10 feet apart, wearing face masks, and connecting in outdoor spaces. Since social connection is such an important part of our well-being it’s vital that we find ways to engage with one another while maintaining our community’s safety against the ongoing pandemic threat.
Others may manage their anxiety by participating in compulsive behavior such as excessive orderliness or rigid behavior. This type of behavior tends to decrease anxiety as it gives us a sense of control over our environment. Think about the toilet paper hoarding we experienced in March and April. Many focused on concrete actions that provide a sense of control and management.
Still others may experience agitation, irritability, or temper as they become overwhelmed by the toll anxiety takes on mental and emotional energy.
Biological survival in any situation comes down to adaptation or changing to meet the demands of the environment. Luckily our superpower as humans is the ability to adapt! We are working hard to help ourselves and each other during this time. We have had to make sacrifices and change our usual approach to work and play. Many of us are learning new languages or how to play an instrument, developing a new craft, reading great books and magazines or completing 1000-piece puzzles! We have learned how to work while upping our parenting game as we provide childcare and education at the same time! Some of us have used this as a “health wake-up call” and have paid more attention to any underlying conditions, weight, or overall health. We’ve watched sunsets, gone for walks, and watched more sunsets! We’ve incorporated new technologies to make our move forward a reality! We have taken control of our lives when we can, propelling ourselves in a powerful way! And this continues!
Know Your Triggers
Triggers for anxiety may vary from person to person. Others may have several triggers. Identification of triggers and communicating about them with loved ones can be helpful. Many are concerned about catching the virus or having loved ones catch the virus. We continue to hear varying types of information about the seriousness of the virus and how to best protect ourselves. Concerns about being around others, particularly strangers, can be linked to this. Uncertainty about the reopening timing, the potential of another shutdown, and changing information about the virus can also trigger anxiety. It is hard to make a plan or to feel in control with such change. Making plans for every eventuality can reduce anxiety and provide a sense of control. We can make plans for safety but also for preventative care, health, and socialization. Many people are also struggling financially at this time. Individuals are having to give up homes or consolidate homes with extended family. Many are seeking unemployment, food pantry assistance, or help from family or neighbors. These challenges are real and should not be minimized or understated. Significant financial strain can contribute significantly towards anxiety.
There are many techniques that assist individuals in reducing anxiety. The first is relaxation training. The body can not be anxious and relaxed at the same time. Learning to relax the body and mind can be very valuable. Techniques that can be useful are:
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Relaxation with Visualization [visual the virus as a small cell that can be defeated by a mild soap, for example]
- Deep Breathing exercises
- Stimulus control [ such as limiting time watching the news which , necessarily to keep us informed, depicts the worst case scenarios]
Cognitive techniques focus on how one thinks about or conceptualizes information. In the roller-coaster example presented above, one’s thoughts or beliefs about the event or about heights would play a large role in the emotional outcome. Our feelings are linked to our thoughts. Techniques that may improve healthy thinking about the virus are:
- Limit “all or nothing” thinking and “catastrophizing”. While prevention is very important to help decrease the spread of the virus, becoming infected does not necessarily mean death for self or for loved ones. However, if you have underlying health conditions or fall into the high risk population please consult your doctor on extra preventative measures.
- Be aware of the mental filter. This is the tendency to take in information that confirms what we believe, or in this case our fears, to the exclusion of other information. Be sure to acknowledge information that indicates that you are healthy and doing well. If you have not caught the virus, celebrate that.
- Another important mental method is to focus on the things we can easily manage. We can set goals for ourselves each day. We do pay attention to the big picture in terms of the effect of the virus on the country and the world. On a day to day basis, it is important for us to be able to focus on what we can each manage individually. This is more realistic and manageable. We can take one step at a time, one day at a time to deal with and manage what is going on in our own lives in terms of the virus.
Therapy and Self-Help
While there are many self-help books on the topic of anxiety, therapists may assist in teaching relaxation and cognitive techniques aimed at reducing and managing anxiety. Therapists may also offer support and a safe place for processing anxiety and fears.
Luckily, leading medical experts have provided sound and helpful information regarding what each of us can do to prevent catching or spreading the virus. Having a sense of control and having sound, concrete preventative tips can reduce anxiety. Check out North Carolina Department of Health’s Preventative Health Guidelines and the state’s strategy to combat COVID-19.
Know the Facts
We are receiving a lot of varying messages about the extent of the spread, the likelihood of infection, and the possibility of death. Uncertainty about what is going on in the community can increase or trigger anxiety. Knowing the factual numbers in the area in which you live can reduce anxiety.
Talk to your doctor about your health and the risk of COVID to get solid health information for you and your family. Based on the health profile of your family, your doctor can make specific recommendations about participating in activities in your community. For example, a doctor may provide different information for an elderly individual or for someone with asthma than to an individual in his or her 20’s with no underlying health issues. Getting solid information about what will work best for you and your family can decrease anxiety.
Take good care of yourself and your loved ones, and remember that we’re here to help you every step of the way!
Cheryl Bennett, PhD believes that every person has the power to make positive and healthy changes in their lives. With over 25 years’ experience, she meets clients where they are, encouraging their personal growth and inner strength. She loves seeing self-actualization develop and is thrilled to be a part of that process with clients, viewing this work as her reason for being on the planet. Adhering to Ghandi’s advice to “be the change you want to see in the world,” Dr. Bennett wants the best for each person, whether that is increased satisfaction, relief from symptoms, cultivating safe and healthy relationships or pursuing their dreams. For more information visit mindpathcare.com/staff/cheryl-bennett-phd.