There is a lot of uncertainty, worry and concern presently, and understandably so. The Coronavirus pandemic has turned life as we know it on its head. For many of us, dealing with the anxiety that comes up around the virus and all that it brings; isolation, social distancing, potentially severe health risks, can be a real struggle. With this in mind, we asked Animas graduate and Clinical Psychologist Dr. Fatoumata Jatta to share her top tips for dealing with anxiety around the Covid-19 pandemic.
1. Maintain and cultivate your social connections
It is vital that we continue practicing ‘social distancing’ for as long as is necessary in order to protect our health services and each other. However, we are social creatures and we need each other. That’s why solitary confinement is one of the cruellest punishments we can inflict on one another. While we have to currently practice physical distancing, we can still be socially close. Technology means that we can talk on the phone, message, and video call so that we can see one another. As these are particularly uncertain times, reaching out is now more important than ever. Maintain and cultivate your existing social connections. Schedule time daily to talk to people in your network. Ask them how they are doing, and how you can support them. Let them know how they might be able to support you.
This is perhaps also an opportunity to make new connections. Staying home is bringing us into closer contact with our neighbours. There may be opportunities to deepen your relationships and support one another. We can also be creative with our social lives. For example, you might want to set up an online film club, or play online games with your friends. Be open to trying new things and you might find that you are deepening relationships with your neighbours, as well as new people from around the world.
2. Manage your worry
The coronavirus crisis may be causing you to worry. We are being told daily about potential threats to our health and financial stability. At the same time, it is unclear when the crisis will shift and what our world will look like once it does. Worry is a process in which we rehearse for potential threats, but without finding a solution for them. When we worry, even though it might feel as if we are doing something to manage the threat that we feel, we don’t actually create solutions. Typically, it causes us to stress more, creating physical reactions like restlessness, difficulty sleeping, and tension. However, worry cannot change things in and of itself. The good news is that worry is a process that you can disengage from.
To better manage your worry start by recognising the process of worry when you are involved in it. Ask yourself what you are worrying about. If it is a hypothetical situation that you have no control over, see if you can let it go. Change your focus of attention to something else. If your worry is about a current situation that you can do something about, then try to make an action plan. Be specific if you can, noting what you can do, when, and how you will do it. If you can take immediate action, do so and then aim to move on and change your attention. If you can’t take immediate action, schedule a time when you can, and then move on. You can find a more visual version of these steps by searching for the ‘Worry Tree’. The key is to see your worry for what it is: a process of negative thinking about potential threats that keeps you engaged in the threats, but without solution. It’s a very understandable and human way of coping with fear and anxiety, but it’s unlikely to be helpful.
3. Understand that ‘thoughts’ are not ‘facts’
You might be feeling more anxious due to the coronavirus situation. At the same time, your usual ways of managing these feelings may be restricted. If you struggle with negative thinking, it’s helpful to remember that your thoughts are not facts. We all develop a way of thinking based on our experiences. Some of our thoughts are helpful, and others are not. Some are factual, while others are not. When you have thoughts that hold you back, or that cause you pain, ask yourself what proof you have that they are true? If you don’t know for sure, then try testing things out. Try to be curious rather than judgemental, give it a try and experiment. As in all good experimenting, adjust accordingly. If you fail, you have gathered some new information that can shift things along for you. You can learn and grow from it. If you succeed, that’s great, what else might be possible for you?
If you don’t experiment in this way, the risk is that you will be guided by your thoughts rather than reality. This means that you may miss out on the chance to find out what you are capable of or what is possible for you. Hopefully, understanding that thoughts are not facts gives you choices and freedom. You can be that little bit braver, take risks, reach out, try for the things that you want, and let go of those that you don’t.
4. Practice self-compassion
Pain is inevitable, while suffering is optional. What you tell yourself about what you feel can make all the difference. Judging yourself negatively for having ordinary and unavoidable painful or difficult emotions like anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness makes those emotions heavier and harder to bear. If you are feeling anxious because of the current situation, try to understand what you tell yourself about the anxiety you feel? For example, do you think that you are weak or wrong for feeling this way, or that you will not be able to cope as a result of your anxiety? What impact do these follow-on thoughts have on you? Thinking you are weak or wrong might cause you further pain and sadness, you might also feel guilty for feeling this way. Feeling sad and guilty may in turn cause you to feel demotivated and to withdraw, causing you to feel more anxious, and so on.
To give yourself a better chance at side-stepping these negative cycles, try to practice self-compassion. This should lighten your emotional load, preventing your pain from turning into suffering. If you are feeling anxious, recognise that this is a normal and appropriate response to the current situation. Validate your feelings and check that you are being fair with yourself. If you find this especially difficult, you can also ask someone who cares about you and has your best interests at heart to help you with this. Or alternatively, you can simply try to imagine what this person would say if you were to ask them.
5. Find your positive ‘story’
Try to find a positive meaning to the situation. Again, it is our stories that make the difference. What you believe to be ‘the story’ about the coronavirus crisis will impact how you feel and what you do. It might be a matter of changing your focus of attention. It is an uncertain and challenging time. At the same time, there may be some positives to the situation. If they are old enough, your children might remember this as a time when they got to spend quality time with you. You might have more time for self-care, or might be using this time to recharge. Perhaps it’s bringing you closer to others, and to yourself. Maybe it has brought something into focus, allowing you to better appreciate what you have, or to make a decision you have been holding off. Early reports on climate change are showing a noticeable drop in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
We cannot yet know everything that will emerge from this crisis. However, we are able to have some control over the meaning we give it. You have multiple meanings that you can choose from. Your anxious thoughts and feelings are valid. But what else can you find in all this? What meanings can nourish you? Try to shine your attention onto the stories that help you.