04 Nov Kicking Anxiety to the Curb During COVID
The threat of COVID-19 has made us face our deepest fears. This is not only happening in other parts of the world, but it has entered our world and the consequence- the pandemic is causing anxiety to rise to an all-time high. A disruption in our daily routine or schedule, and a lack of resources to respond, leads to stress. This is not unlike the experience of grief after the death of a loved one.
Grief after a death is normally associated with feelings of deep profound sadness, longing and yearning which causes deep emotional pain. Anxiety is a very normal part of the grief process.
Let’s begin with asking, “What is anxiety?” It is an instinctive part of your human response system, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response which ensures you remain safe or adapt. However, nowadays, when your fight or flight response is activated, it is not typically in response to danger. And when the system becomes hijacked, you may feel threatened or have an underlying feeling of dread or uncertainty.
When confronted with the COVID-19 virus, the threat to your wellbeing is real. But your neurological system is not familiar with this type of threat. It specializes in ensuring you have enough food and/or are safe from predators. You still need to adapt and keep safe from this viral threat.
Anxiety is very often experienced through physical sensations, emotions, behaviour or thoughts which are interconnected. You can tend to think and behave irrationally. When your emotions are dysregulated, your higher cognitive functioning (thinking), literally, goes ‘offline’…. and you do not make rational decisions. For example, many overreacted by stockpiling toilet paper, remember? This gave them the illusion that they have some type of control by being proactive.
Like stress, not all anxiety is bad. It can also be used to your advantage. It can serve as a great motivator…feeling anxious can motivate you to act in ways that are functional but not in a state of ‘frenzy.” In the case of COVID-19, it is necessary to keep informed of current guidelines, based on facts, to keep you, your loved ones, and others safe. These are the things within your control. It is worth noting, however, that doing everything within your control does not guarantee you a favourable outcome either. Taking precautions can certainly reduce the likelihood of becoming seriously ill, but there is no guarantee, is there? This is naturally unnerving because anxiety just c-r-a-v-e-s certainty. We need to acknowledge and learn to accept that there will always be things beyond our control.
One of the certainties of life, though, is that things will always change and end. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, one thing is constant and that is change. In the case of the current pandemic, you can do what is within your control, practice patience, settle into the uncertainty and wait, for this too, will end. When someone is grieving, however, an “end” can bring a heightened need for closeness when it’s not possible because of physical distancing. This only adds duress to the complexity of your grief experience.
After I lost my eldest brother, Bohdan, in 2004, I essentially experienced “separation anxiety”. This anxiety stems from feelings which arise after the death of a person who provided us with comfort, security, a safe haven or protection from threat. So, it is only understandable that all my feelings of anxiety and apprehension were heightened when he died. I started to feel emotionally unsafe…. the world as I knew it had changed…and I started to feel insecure and not protected, without my big brother. I began searching and yearning ways and behaviours that would help the healing process….or perhaps bring him back. And as the time passed, and the reality of the permanence became more “real” (because all my searching and yearning did not bring my brother back) , my responses changed to profound sadness and pain.
One reason that grief is so painful is that we have to learn to let go of our physical attachment to our loved one after their death. We continue to have a relationship with them, albeit not in a physical sense. It changes to an inner relationship with called a “continuing bond” as we learn to bring meaning to our life in their absence. Our grief anxiety can also be related to being confronted with our own mortality and about being changed and different than before. Furthermore, any pre-existing anxiety will be exacerbated during the grief process. Be reassured that if you have experienced anxiety, that you are ‘normal’, as there is “no right way to grieve’” or a “one size fits all’ answer to grief.
Anxiety due to grief or COVID-19 can manifest itself in many different ways:
Physically (knots in the stomach, increased heart rate, tightness in chest, shallow breathing), Cognitively (obsessing, scanning the environment for threat, “what if” scenarios), Behaviourally (withdrawing, avoiding behaviours, agitation), and Emotionally (worry, apprehension, fear, dread). These may not feel “good”, in fact these symptoms are uncomfortable, but they are signals that we need to pay attention. If you are not paying attention, you can’t act.
If you still experience anxiety symptoms after you have done things within your control you may want to try, explore, and discover the following:
- Practice deep breathing. As you focus on your breath in for a count of 4 and out slowly for a count of 4, soften your muscles and release the tension. This helps slow down the fight or flight response and allows you to move into a state of peace and serenity. Side note: On every inhale your belly should rise, and on every exhale your belly deflates.
- Practice mindfulness. I mentioned in my recent blog, “Yes, There is Always Hope” how mindfulness is a huge game changer. Mindfulness means being aware of your present, either your actions or feelings (even if uncomfortable and painful) without judgment or criticism. Refrain from being hard on yourself. Being mindful or totally engaged in your present moves you away from your feelings of anxiety. When you stay in the present you are less likely to concern yourself with the future.
- Engage in some form of physical activity. You may have to become creative if your normal form of physical outlet (gyms, yoga classes, team sports) is not available to you. I walk daily and make it my goal to reach 10,000 steps.
- Connect with important people in your life while sheltering in place. How do you remain “close” with physical distancing in place? Do you Zoom? Skype? Face time?
- Acknowledge that it is simply not possible to control everything and practice becoming comfortable with living with uncertainty. When you practice any new behaviour you will initially feel uncomfortable and, in turn, intensify anxiety. Never give up. Practice. It can become more natural. I promise. Remember, it is an illusion that we have control over a lot of things. Letting go of our need to control and “surrendering” liberates us from our fears.
- Believe in your capacity to handle whatever happens. Whether this means you reach out and ask for help or you manage on our own, it is a testament to your ability to problem solve and build resilience. I firmly believe there is no obstacle we can not overcome.
- Reach out to someone in need. This will help to shift the focus from your fears or anxiety (future oriented) to someone else (present oriented). Be in the moment.
- Change your Thinking. When you find your anxiety increasing, and your fears are overwhelming you, try changing your “what if” thoughts; distract yourself with a ”here and now” manageable task.
- Manage and limit your media exposure in the case of COVID-19 and rely on trusted resources and experts with respect to your grief and
- Practice self-compassion. During times of stress and anxiety, it’s possible to become critical of ourselves because of our vulnerabilities, failures, and inadequacies. Instead, gift yourself permission to accept your fears with compassion, acknowledge your humanity with all its frailties and treat yourself with kindness and empathy as you would a friend or loved one.
Coping with Feelings of anxiety in times of COVID can be challenging but possible. Take the first step and reap the results of a more joyful, happier you.
If you found this article helpful please share it so someone else may benefit.
Irene Andrejczuk, ND is a clinical naturopath, Reiki Master, NLP practitioner, Kundalini Yoga practitioner, counselor, and owner and founder of Optimum Health Clinic, Montreal, Qc. She provides counseling in the areas of PTSD, grief/loss, bereavement, depression, anxiety, adjustment to injury or illness and trauma. Irene is a frequent blogger on PTSD and grief. She continues to offer support during the pandemic through Skype, phone, or email. She is offering special “never seen before” promotions during COVID and an additional discount to Essential Care Workers and First Responders. Irene can easily be reached through her website, www.optimumhealthclinic.ca/counseling , by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 514-933-8029.