You don’t need me to tell you that levels of anxiety are surging – that’s the experience of a lot of people in the mental health field.
Anxiety over something you can fix is one thing – to get rid of the anxiety, you fix it. When it’s about something outside your control, that’s tougher to handle. But throughout our lives, not just now, we’re having to deal with events that are outside our control so it’s worth considering how to co-exist with that sort of anxiety.
What can you do to get through this whole pandemic experience, and other out-of-control events in better emotional shape?
To me the strategy starts with acceptance.
For instance, people returning to the workplace often have a fear of catching the virus on the bus, tram or train. That’s a reasonable fear. Even still it’s not uncommon to see two or three people who take off their masks as soon as they get to their seats in public transport.
Many of us feel inhibited about asking these individuals to put their mask back on and, if asked, their reply might be far from agreeable.
So you have to accept the anxiety and stay away from them as far as you can. And when you find yourself running scenarios through your head in which you turn into Judge Dredd and send them scrambling for their masks in terror, remember that thoughts are physical – in other words stressful thoughts raise your blood pressure. So keep coming back to awareness of the moment you are in rather than ramping up your stress with revenge fantasies.
The same applies to fear of the behaviour of irresponsible colleagues in the workplace. Avoid them in you can, ask them to change if you dare or ask the management to enforce coronavirus safety. But accept that a certain amount of stress is inevitable.
What’s the use of all this acceptance?
In my experience, acceptance lowers anxiety straight away. It may not get rid of it but any lowering is welcome.
Other simple methods also lower stress and anxiety even though they don’t resolve the issue that caused it in the first place.
Physical methods include the body scan and calm, deliberate breathing. To do the body scan bring awareness to your body in stages, from your toes to the top of your head (toes, soles of your feet, tops of your feet, ankles, calves etc) . Pace yourself by the number of breaths you take between stages – maybe two if you are sitting, say, on a train and four if you are lying in bed awake. I find it very effective for getting back to sleep.
For calm breathing, try a 4,4,6,2 sequence. Count to four while breathing in, hold your breath to a count of four, breathe out to a count of six and then count to two before breathing in again. Do this easily and calmly – don’t make a big deal out of it. The longer out-breath is calming.
It's a cliché that talking helps but it's a true one. Isolation allows fears and anxieties to rise and talking to someone about the weather, the garden, football or what you're watching on Netflix can allow them to subside for a time at least. It isn't clear why this should be so and it may be the social connection with the other person that's the active ingredient.
A repeated phrase or affirmation can help too. I like to use the phrase “‘Not happening now” when I’m being bothered by thoughts about events from the past or future. An affirmation, for me, is a way to replace a distressing thought with a neutral or positive one. Make up your own if you like.
Hopefully these tactics will stay with you as useful tools after the pandemic ends. As I said above, anxiety is a frequent visitor to human beings so these tools will always be worth having.