Understanding and Managing Anxiety within the COVID-19 Pandemic

 

Anxiety is not a new idea to most people. It is something almost all of us have experienced from time to time.  But when we (or the world) goes through something life altering, anxiety is exacerbated to an extraordinary level.  For this reason, we need to understand what anxiety is and learn the tools to better cope with our new high stress environment amidst COVID-19.  

We take risks every day that do not lead us to experiencing added stress or anxiety, but that is because the human brain often ignores the probabilities of risks.  It is not until something out of the norm takes place, leading us to experience things that are beyond our control, that we are alerted to risks and anxiety. When something seems new and uncertain, we as humans have the desire to avoid this uncertainty, trying to escape or avoid being in uncomfortable situations, and tend to over-control our environment.  This is what anxiety is, the inability to sit in discomfort and the unknown.

Sure, having some anxiety over COVID-19 is a normal experience.  Small amounts of anxiety are like a warning signal, alerting us to harm.  This alert or warning will help people to remember to wash their hands more often, be more mindful of covering their mouths when coughing or sneezing, and distancing themselves when others cough around them.  However, when it causes more significant behavioral changes it can become more problematic, it becomes panic. And being over cautious actually puts us at higher risk.

So what then do we need to do in order to keep our anxiety at a healthy warning state? Let us take a look at a few different coping skills aimed at managing anxiety. Some of these may look and sound familiar to you.

 

Feeling Scanning is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) technique that is aimed at paying attention to what you are feeling. Often-times we are unaware of our feelings until they become unmanageable.  For this reason, it is important to be aware of our feelings and how they may affect the way in which we act. If we can catch our feelings earlier, we have an enhanced ability to change our thought process and actions that would in turn significantly improve our anxiety management.  

 

Body Scanning is very similar to the above, however, instead of scanning for feelings you are scanning to notice the sensations that your body is experiencing.  This type of scan helps you to notice what your body is experiencing during a certain feeling. This type of connection works to break the cycle of physical and psychological tension that ends up feeding on itself. As a result, a body scan is useful and effective in helping you to return to and maintain a relaxed state when you become too tense. 

Ways in which you can participate in feeling and body scanning include: meditation, mindfulness exercises, and grounding techniques. There are many phone applications, YouTube videos, and Pinterest posts to help you on these endeavours. A few of the more common ones can be found at the links below. 

 

Perception Shaping is the act of biasing our attention which can create reality-distorting effects on our perception.  As humans, we have a localized spotlight of attention because taking in all the visual information from the environment at once would overwhelm the brain.  This spotlight allows our minds to focus only on what is important while ignoring any irrelevant information, making reality comprehensible. While most of the time we intentionally choose what to focus our spotlight of attention on, it’s not always under voluntary control and we don’t always treat everything in the environment equally.  Therefore we can actually be causing distress to ourselves by focusing on only part of the information, the wrong information, and creating misinformation. This is when anxiety strikes, as it is associated with a tendency to focus on negative stimuli. Therefore the goal of the perception shaping is to locate or respond to positive images and information.  We need to work to dissolve anxiety-driven attentional biases for threat and become more self-aware of the way that anxiety influences our attentional spotlight in order to prevent reality distortion that instills fear. A tangible way to implement this is to be mindful of news intake. Remember to stick only to reliable sources (CDC, WHO, trustworthy local news),do not google symptoms, do not overindulge in the latest news coverage, and do not continuously look at what the reasonable protocol is.  Read or watch just enough to be informed and safe, but not enough to worry about every detail or moving part that there is. At times like this, when information is everywhere, we must be an active participant in localizing our spotlight of attention.

 

Thought Refocusing As stated above, our thoughts can become extremely negative and singularly focused, leaving us in a downward spiral of catastrophizing. During times of high stress or when we are taking in too much biased information.  For this reason we need to look at choosing thoughts that would increase the likelihood of positive feelings. So how do we do this? First, there is the idea of paradoxical intervention for anxiety. This is when we do the opposite of the fear itself, continue the undesired symptomatic behavior, and even increase it, in order to see that you in fact do have voluntary control over it.  An example of what this would look like with regards to COVID-19 may be taken from our current state of needing to comply with social distancing.  It seems like we have no control over what that actually looks like other than sitting along in our homes. So the therapeutic challenge would be in telling yourself that you want to social distance and creating a list of ways in which you yourself can work on staying indoors. You have now taken a thought that felt involuntary and refocused it into one that you can now take ownership of. The most ideal times of the day to challenge your thoughts are in the morning right when waking up (as your brain is more open to new information) and right before going to bed (to help process that day). 

 

I know this is a lot of information, at a time where we are loaded with information.  If you have any questions or concerns regarding this information please do not hesitate to comment.  Allow your fellow citizens, and the staff here at Ampersand Integrative Wellness, help you manage these trying times. Even though we are being urged to social distance, we need to stick together.  It may look different than we would like, but the way out of this is in solidarity. We’re all in this together! (Sorry for the corny High School Musical reference for those of you in the right age range, but it is true).

 

Links to:

Body Scans- https://www.verywellmind.com/body-scan-meditation-why-and-how-3144782

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OS_iqfGjL78

Grounding Technique- https://theblissfulmind.com/grounding-technique/

Mindfulness- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZToicYcHIOU

You can also check out  Calm or HeadSpace on your smartphone store. 

 

References:

Koop, J. (2020). As Coronavirus spreads, here are tips to manage your anxiety. The Philly      VOICE.

Sweet Institute Continuing Education. (2020, March). Understanding Anxiety 2.0.

 

 

Ashley Moser

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counselor 

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