As coronavirus spreads, a lot of us have been advised (or in a lot of cases directed) to practice social distancing and stay inside, only venturing outdoors for completely essential reasons, if at all. Of course it's imperative that we protect the sick and vulnerable, do our civic duty, observe physical distancing directions and just generally be sound, so that this ordeal might pass as quickly as possible.
Isolation can be hard at the best of times, but if you're struggling with anxiety it can be even more difficult. Whether you're having a bout of anxiety brought on by the current pandemic or are an anxiety sufferer generally, below are some do's and don'ts that I hope help you out during these uncertain times.
1. Do limit your time on social media if you're feeling overwhelmed
I'm never one to jump on the social media bashing bandwagon, but it is majorly important that we use it discerningly, now more that ever. We couldn't ask for more in our options for staying socially connected while maintaining a physical distance from each other, and as always, this is something of a double edged sword. Many of us, particularly those with anxiety, really don't like uncertainty.
So when there are no obvious answers, or we don't get the answer we want, we'll use a little something called confirmation bias and put 2 + 2 together to get 5. Obsessively checking social media can feel like a way to control or make sense of things, but it can often send us into a spiral of worry and misinformation. If you're feeling freaked out by the doom mongering on your feed, step away. If you do want to keep up to date with the goings on of the world, make sure you get your information from reliable sources.
Don't cut yourself off completely
If social media helps you stay and feel connected, that's great. There's a lot of wonderful accounts out there that are a tremendous help to people's mental health. No need to go cold turkey if you think that might cause you more stress. The trick here is to limit and be discerning. Stick to accounts that help you feel calm.
2. Do stay connected with loved ones
I vote that we start referring to it as physical distancing rather than social distancing! It has been really heartening to see the ways in which people are utilizing what's available to them to stay connected to each other. From online book clubs, to Netflix watch parties, to lads playing ping pong from separate balconies, we can still socialize, albeit in different and innovative ways. Schedule in regular chats with loved ones. Try using video chats and voice clips over text. Research suggests that seeing the faces and hearing the voices of those we care about helps us feel more connected.
Don't be afraid to implement boundaries
That being said, a crisis doesn't have to mean that your personal boundaries go out the window! If you are sharing close quarters with others, make sure to get in some alone time. Give yourself permission to limit what you want to talk/hear about as well as your interaction with people who you feel increase your anxiety.
3. Do focus on what you can control
All you can do is control your own actions, and not the actions of others. You can observe physical distancing, you can wash your hands, you can limit your news intake, you can decide how you behave towards other people. Write down a list of all the things that are in your control at this moment and focus on that.
Don't fall back into destructive behavior patterns
At times like this it can be tempting to (even unconsciously) slip back into old ways of coping that are potentially harmful to us. Drinking, texting a toxic ex, compulsively checking social media and even obsessing over a particular thought can all be used as destructive coping mechanisms. Be honest, but kind to yourself. Gently remind yourself that while understandable, these behaviors no longer serve you, and try to let them go. At times like this it's important to remember that obsessive worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn't get you anywhere.
4. Do take part in an engaging activity
Now is the perfect moment to do something that you've always wanted to try but never found the time. Start learning a new language, learn to cook a new dish, take an online course, delve into that new book you've been meaning to read, do an online exercise tutorial, write a story. Try new things that engage you brain in a meaningful way. If you can find something that engages your brain and body at the same time, so much the better.
Don't try to do a million things at once
You might think "cool. I'll learn a new language, batch cook my dinners for the week, start writing my memoirs and go full Marie Kondo on this place all before lunch time!"Doing this runs the risk of burning you out. Take your time, set achievable goals and focus on one thing at a time.
5. Do leave space to feel your feelings
Okay, so if you're anxious this could seem like a terrifying prospect at the moment, but it's really important. Sometimes we hate our worry and anxiety, but at the moment it may just be a passive messenger giving us information. It's normal. It's normal to feel worried at a time like this. Give yourself the space to feel what you feel, have a cry if you need to.
Try the Buddhist, Pema Chodron method of 'feel the feeling and drop the story'. Human beings have a tendency to want to make sense of our feelings, that's okay. We tend to reverse engineer this. So we feel a feeling and think 'huh, what's this about?' and then we create a story in our minds to explain the feeling.
Now if you have anxiety that can sometimes be a little bit of an issue. You might experience an anxious feeling and think 'Oh my god something terrible is about to happen! That's why I'm feeling this way!' and then conjure up all these terrifying reasons as to why this feeling is here. Try to validate your emotion while challenging or distancing yourself from the scary story. You might say something like "it's perfectly understandable to feel anxious at a time like this, but it's likely a reflection of the uncertainty I feel, not an accurate reflection of objective reality." Or if that sounds too therapisty (I'm making this a word) try "It's normal to be anxious at a time like this, but my thoughts are just a story and not a fact".
Don't beat yourself up for feeling the way you do
So just because your feelings aren't always reflective of 100% objective reality doesn't mean they're not valid. It's understandable to be scared and anxious when faced with uncertainty, and really uncertainty is the nucleus of this life we're all living. Be gentle with yourself and remember that no one ever criticized themselves into changing (in fact research would suggest that radical acceptance of the self is what brings about positive change, but that's a post for another day)
Also don't trivialize your other worries. You might think 'how can I think about my job/relationship/upcoming holiday/whatever at a time like this?!', when the reality is that we can hold space for lots of caring at once. Empathy and caring is not a cake, there's usually enough to go around! New York therapist Tori Eletto sums it up beautifully when she says "valuing something beyond ourselves while still validating our own unique struggle, is the perfect example of how most situations involve complex, coexisting emotions'
6. Do create gentle structure
At times like this it's easy to feel very adrift, like all our emotions and thoughts are lost at sea. We don't know what we're "supposed" to be doing with ourselves. Some of you might find it helpful to implement a gentle structure. I say gentle because you don't want it to be a punitive regime, implemented to keep you separate from your thoughts and feelings at all times! Rather it should be a helpful framework to assist you in having some sense of agency throughout your day.
Don't beat yourself up for not being "productive" enough
Maybe it's a well thought out plan, maybe it's a deal you make with yourself to eat at the same times and just change your clothes daily. We have a real habit of forgetting that we're human 'beings' and not human 'doings'. Your inherent worth as a person is not measured by your levels of productivity. So whatever structure you implement, keep it gentle, and remember that it's there to help you and not to be used as a metaphorical stick to beat yourself with!
Other anxiety reducing activities
The bottom line
The world is generally a very uncertain place, and what's going on at the moment is really making that more obvious than ever. Whatever way you choose to cope, be gentle and kind to yourself and others. If you found this post helpful, you may also enjoy this post that I wrote about dealing with loneliness during social isolation. I'll leave you with "the world's most relaxing song" Weightless by Marconi Union. Scientifically composed with anxiety in mind and proven to increase feelings of relaxation.
Welcome to my blog, where you will find articles and book reviews to assist you on your mental health journey. I am a psychotherapist, casual journalist, lifelong book nerd and a big believer in Bibliotherapy (the therapeutic use of books and reading!) Metal health is my passion and I take it seriously. I also like to make my posts interesting and accessible, so expect to see the occasional meme.