By Annie Wright, LMFT
10 min read
Unless you’ve been living under a rock and taking a major detox from all forms of media consumption and social contact, you’re well aware that the world is talking about COVID-19, the coronavirus.
And, like many, you’ve likely felt surges of anxiety about the coronavirus. I get it. I have a bit, too.
So how do we manage this anxiety even as we move forward with our jobs and lives, tending to what we need to on a daily basis while living with the possibility that this flu could touch our lives.
I think we first take action where we can and then we use all the tools we have to manage our anxiety and help others around us manage their anxiety.
In terms of action, I’m an advocate for smart preparations and taking practical steps wherever when we can – whether this is prepping for California wildfire season, having an earthquake kit at home and at my daughter’s daycare, or having all the necessary fire safety equipment at my boutique therapy center.
Taking action when you can and when and where it’s appropriately advised and indicated is a smart thing to do.
To that end, I highly recommend that each of us do what we can to keep our immune systems healthy and then read up on what the CDC is recommending Americans do to prepare for a possible outbreak and quarantine and then follow their guidance.
If stocking up on two weeks of shelf-stable food and water and bleach makes you feel better and less anxious, go for it!
If developing a plan with your child’s school/daycare provider alleviates your fear, do it.
Whatever action(s) you need or want to take that will help you feel more in control to deal with whatever may come, do it.
But what do you do when you’ve taken all the action you can and your anxiety is still peaking?
What do you do to manage your own feelings so you can be more calm and present for your kids or loved ones?
Here are a few of my best anxiety-management tools.
I hope they feel helpful and useful to you in these times.
Coronavirus Anxiety Tool #1: Ground Yourself & Calm Your Nervous System.
When you’re feeling anxious, your autonomic nervous system (ANS) is aroused and activates your fight, flight, or freeze impulses, catalyzing a whole cascade of physiological symptoms throughout your body.
One of the ways you can begin to calm your nervous system and ease your anxiety is through some physical grounding and breath-driven self-soothing.
A tool I’ve found to be incredibly effective is a simple presence and breathing exercise:
Sit comfortably in a chair or on the couch. Let your eyes close and rest your hands on your legs or on the furniture in whatever way feels comfortable to you. Slowly, and with your lips slightly open, begin taking a deep breath in, pushing your lower abdomen out with air, bringing oxygen to the bottom of your lungs. As you breathe in, notice your feet on the floor, your butt on the cushion, your back against the furniture. On your exhale, release your breath slowly — a few counts longer than your inhale — and continue bringing your awareness to any sensations or sounds you notice — maybe your fingers on the fabric of your pants, the sound of traffic outside, the breeze coming in through the window… Breathe in and breath out slowly, noticing all the slight sensations around you for 10-15 slow, mindful breaths, allowing your body to relax and your mind to center. And finally, when you’re ready, come back to the room.
The benefit to this particular tool is that it helps bring oxygen to our brain and calms our autonomic nervous system, allowing us to relax and access more parts of ourselves and to think and act from a more grounded, integrated place.
Coronavirus Anxiety Tool #2: Untwist Your Thinking & Challenge Your Anxiety-Provoking Thoughts.
If you pay attention to what you’re saying to yourself when you catch yourself feeling anxious, you’re probably saying something scary to yourself.
Anxiety scans our lives and futures and tries to warn us of possible threats, so it’s pretty masterful in triggering scary thoughts.
One of my other favorite tools when my clients are struggling with scary, catastrophic future-oriented thoughts is to have them untwist their thinking with a version of questioning informed by The Work by Byron Katie.
Byron Katie is a spiritual teacher, author, and creator of The Work, which, according to her website is “a way of identifying and questioning the thoughts that cause all the anger, fear, depression, addiction, and violence in the world.”
The Work is available for free on her website and while you can review all the steps of her process there, what I have my clients do is a simplified version of her process consisting of identifying and naming the anxiety-provoking thought, asking questions to test its reality, and turning the thought inside out by finding four reasons why that thought may not be fully true.
When you challenge the truth of the thoughts that are creating your anxiety and literally untwist them by finding reasons why the opposite might be true, you can create a bit more flexibility in your thinking.
And since thoughts can generate feelings, when you create more spaciousness and flexibility in your thinking, you can often ease your anxiety.
Coronavirus Anxiety Tools #3 & #4: Halt Emotional Flooding Through Mental Distraction.
Have you ever been so wrapped up in your anxiety that you started to become emotionally flooded?
Slightly short of breath, totally in your story, detached from the room you’re sitting in and the person you’re with because of the intensity of your feelings?
You may have been emotionally flooding.
Again, when you’re anxious and perceiving threats, your autonomic nervous system is aroused and your body becomes flooded with a cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol.
This can make it hard to think clearly and to maintain focus and react rationally.
This is emotional flooding.
Two ways you can interrupt this flooding and help yourself get centered and present is through the following tools, both of which were inspired by my understanding of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
If you catch yourself flooding or perhaps just caught in the loop of an anxiety-provoking thought, tell yourself to look around you in whatever room or environment you may be in, and try to scan the surroundings to find and count aloud five colors of a certain shade.
(Hint: I like to have my clients look for colors like purple or gold which are often far harder to find than colors like black and brown which tend to be pretty ubiquitous.)
The reason why this tool is effective is that it pulls your mind away from the intensity of the internal experience you’re having and forces your attention to be external, literally scanning your surroundings and focusing on a task, which can help reduce the emotional flooding you may have been experiencing.
Counting Backward. With a Twist.
Another great tool to use on yourself (or to use with someone else who is anxious and emotionally flooding) is to count backward.
But not just any counting backward — anyone can basically recite 100, 99, 98, 97, etc. without much concentration or effort.
What we want you to do instead is to pick a big number like 637 and then pick an odd, random number like 19.5 and start counting backward to zero from 637 by 19.5.
(Did you just frown in concentration reading those words? That’s exactly the point!)
Focused efforts to actually try and do that math engages your brain in a way that can distract from the anxiety and flooding you may have been experiencing.
Try it next time you’re emotionally flooding in any way, whether with anxiety, or maybe anger at a co-worker.
It’s a subtle, invisible tool that can be wonderful for emotional regulation.
Coronavirus Anxiety: Moving forward…
We don’t know what the coming weeks and months will hold with regards to the coronavirus.
But then again, we never really know what the coming weeks and months will hold with regard to anything.
As much as we like to think we’re in control and our futures are reasonably known and stable, they’re not. Not really.
But most of us avoid thinking about that or being in touch with that reality until something like this – the coronavirus – emerges and reminds us of how truly unpredictable life really is.
There’s one final thing I like to bear in mind when I feel anxiety about the coronavirus and when I see others feeling anxious: we humans have endured countless “plagues” and pandemics since time immemorial.
We have endured this before, we will endure it again.
And humanity has always persisted.
Take good care of yourself, my friend.
Do what you can to take action and then, if you’re struggling, please practice any of the tools I’ve outlined to support you.
Annie Wright, LMFT is the Founder and Executive Director of Evergreen Counseling. She specializes in complex relational trauma and EMDR therapy.
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