by Irene Rowland MS,NCC,LPC
We are living in uncertain times. If a person already struggled with anxiety, it would make sense to have heightened anxiety currently with so much turmoil in the world. If one is new to the vulnerability of anxiety rearing its head throughout the day, it could be especially troubling to be experiencing those kinds of feelings and behaviors.
Look for Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety can look different with each person, however there are some common symptoms. Some of those are hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, racing thoughts, irritability, change in appetite, feeling a general restlessness, and difficulty concentrating on anything other than what one is worried about. There can also be physical manifestations such as rapid heart rate, trembling, sweating and feeling weak or exhausted. Symptoms can ebb and flow or increase rapidly leading to a panic attack.
Normal anxiety looks like uneasiness and concern in a stressful situation. Extreme anxiety, where emotions are too hard to handle and fear or worry takes over and affects functioning in daily life activities, is when the help of a professional would be wise.
Everyone was created with the fight or flight instinct which is very helpful in times of immediate danger such as a car speeding directly towards a person. When people are safe, but nonetheless have a sense of dread and of impending doom, they can be hypervigilant. This means always being on alert looking for what could go wrong. This takes a toll on one’s mind and body. It can make an individual irritable and difficult to be around.
Anxiety is a fairly common difficulty so therefore sufferers of this condition are not alone. Luckily, they are not helpless against it, even though it may feel like it at times. If self-care strategies are not helping, then hopefully one would consider contacting a therapist. Physical, emotional and spiritual health depends on the decisions people make to protect themselves.
Consider Some Strategies for Coping
Often anxiety is created by negative thoughts of the future, the “what ifs” and the possibilities of what could go badly. The key to getting to a place of calmness, peace, and even joy, is by actively reeling in those thoughts and concentrating on the present moment. Presently many people are probably sheltered safely at home with the comforts of food, clean clothes and beautiful objects that make them smile such as photographs of happy times.
If they live with others, this is a good opportunity for them to get to know each other on a deeper level, learn to communicate better, and enjoy each other’s company in new ways. Together families form a domestic church and can explore what God might be showing them during this time of distancing from the outside world.
If a person lives alone currently, now is a good time to get to know both themselves and God better, to learn new things or start new hobbies. Reading, journaling, allowing oneself to slow down and reflect are all good ways to regenerate and combat anxiety.
Perhaps some live in a household with others that they don’t get along with and are in a difficult situation. This would be a perfect time to seek professional help because the chaos in the current world situation combined with problems in the home life can increase the intensity of the current issues and worsen the situation.
There are so many ways that people can help themselves and take back control. Everyone needs to build up their toolkit of helpful skills and ways to get to that calmer, happier place that they would like to be in.
The first step is to have a schedule so that there are routines and a structure to the day. There’s no need to be rigid about it, but it’s a good framework. Having a plan in place gives a sense of control, purpose and things to look forward to. This also leaves less room for boredom. Everyone’s schedule has been disrupted in one way or another since the pandemic got closer to home. Intentionally creating a new schedule is empowering and gives a sense of normalcy.
Catholic mindfulness exercises can be very grounding and give people back a sense of peace. There are many good resources on the internet, in books such as The Mindful Catholic by Dr. Gregory Bottaro and apps such as Hallow that can be downloaded.
A simple way to be in the present moment for instance is to use the 5 senses. Slow down and notice what are 5 things that are seen, what are 4 noises that are heard, 3 things smelled, 2 things physically felt and finally what is tasted. One could intentionally prepare for this particular way to self soothe by keeping hand lotion in one’s backpack, chocolate in their purse 😊 or photos in their wallet.
Reminding oneself of what has helped in the past is a good resource. Perhaps writing down a list of all the constructive ways that come to mind of past successful ways to center oneself would be of help. Then, when in the middle of feeling anxious and having difficulty thinking, a person can refer to their list to decide what action step to take to help themselves.
It would basically be a personal emotional safety plan. Some potential ideas could include going for a walk, praying, reading a good book, taking a bath, cooking something that is a favorite, trying a new recipe, calling rather than texting an old friend, playing a board game, gardening, listening to music or watching a movie. The list is endless of what might bring some enjoyment, be a healthy distraction or a way to be a blessing to others.
Examine One’s Thoughts
Concentrating on the cognitive skills that can help one’s mindset can also be quite useful. One of the ways to do that might be to learn about cognitive distortions. This information would help a person to examine how to analyze automatic thoughts and the ways that they may not be serving themselves well.
Using self- reflection by putting thoughts under a magnifying glass can be fruitful in general. With prior preparation, when anxiety strikes, people can remind themselves of what is the truth and what is merely a lie that they have told themselves. There are ten main cognitive distortions or automatic unhealthy thoughts.
1. All or Nothing Thinking, seeing things in black and white absolutes but often the truth is somewhere in the middle.
2. Overgeneralization, viewing a negative event as a never- ending pattern
3. Mental Filter, dwelling on the negatives
4. Discounting the Positives, insisting they don’t count
5. Jumping to Conclusions, assuming negativity and predicting things will turn out badly
6. Magnification or Minimization, blowing things out of proportion or shrinking their importance
7. Emotional Reasoning, conclusions from emotions rather than facts
8. Should Statements, this wording often results in emotional bullying of self or others
9. Labeling, basically not extending grace, instead of “I made a mistake”, telling oneself “I’m a jerk.”
10. Self-Blame or Other-Blame, taking too much responsibility or too little responsibility when something goes wrong.
Having these kinds of thoughts can be part of the human condition. It’s what is done with these thoughts that matters. If a person dwells on them, they can talk themselves right into anxiety. If these thoughts are acted on, a real mess can be made for both the individual and others. Slowing down and examining what is the truth and setting these distortions aside, instead of believing them, would also help pave the way for healthier living.
The Serenity Prayer, if taken seriously, has some of the answers to how one can feel better about whatever is going on in their life in general and especially in these confusing times.
God, grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change…
Courage to change the things I can,
And Wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it.
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His will.
That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.
Working on increasing healthy coping mechanisms, learning helpful ways to deescalate anxiety and adding to the toolkit of anti-anxiety weapons is within people’s control. There is freedom in feeling more competent and in control of immediate circumstances even if the world swirling around a person is in turmoil.
Having a therapist assist with processing struggles and life circumstances can be a rewarding experience and valuable accompaniment along the way of a growth journey. Just being able to tell one’s story to an attentive, non-judgmental professional can be very therapeutic and help to sort things out. Sometimes anti-anxiety medication is part of the answer. There is no shame in medication to help the brain, just as there is no shame in taking medicine to help the heart or liver.
Often there’s a genetic predisposition towards depression or anxiety. In those cases, often the best outcome is a combination of medication and therapy. There are many kind and knowledgeable therapists. If it’s time to enlist some extra assistance, don’t hesitate to make that courageous call and start the journey to feeling better. If one begins and ends their day in prayer, often there’s less of a chance of the day completely unraveling in between. Be safe and be blessed.