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Anxiety and fear are normal human responses to a crisis.
Anxiety’s primary purpose is to keep you alive and safe, however, this very primitive part of our brain does not care about your mental wellbeing or if you are happy.
So, how do we learn to continue living a happy and meaningful life during a crisis where the future is filled with uncertainty, anxiety and fear?
A situation like COVID-19 provides the perfect opportunity for anxiety to take hold and impact our quality of life. Sadly, we can’t control what COVID-19 does, how long it will hang around or whether or not there will be a second wave.
You can, however, learn how to manage your response to that uncertainty. In other words, you can’t always stop having worrying thoughts and feelings but you can change how they impact your life.
Here are a few strategies that may help.
Listen in to your thoughts and feelings
Often people try and not think of the things that are distressing them or try and distract themselves from their worries.
Unfortunately this technique—whilst effective in the short term—usually give these distressing thoughts and feelings more power. The more we avoid them, the scarier they become.
The problem with avoidance is that you might be successful at distracting and keeping yourself busy during the day, but what about when your mind is trying to relax—like falling and staying asleep?
Take the time to tune into what you are feeling and listening to what the feeling is telling you. It could be useful information—or it could be unhelpful. But either way, don’t be afraid to get to know it
Just because you feel it or think it, doesn’t make it true
Learn to observe and question your thinking by asking yourself if your thoughts are based on factual information about what is likely to happen or whether your thinking could be amplifying the anxiety or fears you have.
Feeling like something is going to happen doesn’t make it the most likely outcome. Try and step back and check in on your thinking. Sometimes anxiety can skew the whole picture only leaving you with worst possible case scenario.
Ask yourself “What’s most likely to happen in this situation, despite what I am feeling?” Check out this helpful link on thinking styles created by the Centre for Clinical Interventions.
Identify the things that you can influence and control
You cannot control COVID-19 and what other people do in supermarkets or in the office or how often they wash their hands, or if they are socially distancing or not.
However, you can control if you do those things and how you are in those situations. You can wear a mask if you feel safer that way, or you can change the times or the way you do your shopping.
You can also influence the way you interact with family and friends by being clear on your boundaries, e.g. if you’re comfortable with meeting at each other’s homes vs going for a walk together.
Alternatively, if your loved ones are more distant than usual, have an open conversation about how you feel about it and try not to make assumptions about your level or lack of importance to them.
Express your needs to others, and allow them to do the same.
Do the stuff that is meaningful
Keeping your mind in the present moment and staying focused and engaged in whatever you are doing is a powerful tool when learning how to live with anticipatory fear and anxiety.
Bringing your focus back to the here and now using your five senses (things you can see, touch, taste, hear and smell).
Going outside helps with connecting to the present, as does taking a few calming breaths and continuing to engage in your life.
Remember, anxiety and fear lives in the future—its preoccupation is with the anticipation of something happening, so practise keeping your mind present.
Move forward and adapt to the new normal
Change is hard, especially when it is forced and sudden. Personally, I must admit the transition to telehealth and the virtual therapy room were challenging for me at first. Things just didn’t quite ‘feel’ the same as they did in the therapy room.
Doing things differently certainly takes more energy and is tiresome as we adjust to the new normal. However, that does not mean we stop doing them.
We readily apply this philosophy when it comes to our employment as our financial situation depends on it, however, we tend to hesitate when it comes to other activities such as our hobbies, social life, and exercise regimes.
The effort doesn’t seem to feel worth it because the payoff feels lesser or ‘not as good’ (in the short term anyway). Nevertheless, humans have an amazing ability to adapt.
I for one now really appreciate the flexibility of virtual therapy room consults, and it will be difficult to transition back to the office!
So, allow yourself to open up and push through the discomfort of change and give the new way of doing things a go.
Do not avoid life or wait for the pandemic to be over before doing the things that bring you joy. This means finding a way to continue exercising and socialising even if the format is temporarily different.
If you like festivals and nightclubs then dance at home. If you like kickboxing or book clubs, join a group online.
Do not wait for life to return to normal or for the threat to be over before you start doing the things that bring meaning to your life—this will only put you at increased risk of depression, increased anxiety and social isolation.
Learn to make space for uncertainty
You don’t have to like what is going on to make space for it and allow it to be there.
Humans are known for their unique ability to hold two competing feelings simultaneously. We can feel jealous of others whilst also feeling happy for them, we can love someone and feel frustration towards them, we can fear something and still engage in the activity.
A part of living a mentally well life is opening up to all of our feelings—not just the ones we like.
I often use the ‘pull up a chair for it’ analogy—allow your feelings to sit next to you but don’t let them take the wheel and direct where you are going (or how you behave).
Remember, your anxious mind is really looking out for you and trying to keep you safe, but sometimes it can hit the fire alarm when you have only burnt your toast.
So, build a different relationship with your anxiety. Tune into it and get to know it and then decide the best course of action—and show it who’s boss!
Note: Title is a reference to “Anxiety doesn’t give a crap if you’re happy”, a quote from Amanda Donnet, Clinical Psychologist from Spilt Milk Psychology Brisbane.