Anxiety: How to stop it controlling your life during lockdown
Who’s on a Daily Rollercoaster Ride?
I don’t think many of us will remember a time when our emotions and anxiety levels have been so up and down with no end in sight to what is causing it.
Whatever you’re feeling anxious about, whether that is fear of catching the virus, worry that family or friends may catch it, unemployment due to the virus or fear of a business collapsing, one negative thought leads to another and before you know it, you’re swirling down a ‘what if’ hole.
Anxiety is also contagious. How many times have you gone on social media recently and ended up feeling more anxious or panicked than before? This is because we see other people’s fears and add them to our own, giving us more reasons to feel anxious.
Trying to ignore anxiety and pretend it doesn’t exist tends to make it worse, as you’re dealing with fear with more fear. We have to recognise and acknowledge anxiety and we can then put into play strategies to help us deal with it. When you’re aware of something, you can do something about it — awareness is absolutely key!
The Science Bit So what actually causes anxiety? One of the crucial parts to dealing with anxiety is understanding exactly what it is. Anxiety can be defined as:”a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome”.
A part of our brain called the Prefrontal Cortex (often referred to as our ‘new brain’) is our analytical, practical thinking part of our brain but when we get stressed or worried and don’t have enough information about the future to plan, this part of our brain can go offline and our ‘old brain’ (whose purpose is survival) takes over. Our old brain is constantly on the look out for danger, threats to our lives and without the balance of the new brain to provide some analysis on suggested threats, we can spiral into anxiety.
So in order to deal with anxiety, we need to keep our new brain online. In the section below, you’ll find five strategies to help you do this.
Strategies We’ve all had a forced eviction from our normal daily lives and everything has been disrupted which can lead to more anxiety. By setting some good mental habits we can reduce the anxious feelings and thoughts.
1. Focus on what you can control A lack of control is often a trigger for anxiety, but even when everything feels outside of your control, there are still many things you can control in your life. Write a list of what you can control and what you can’t control. This helps you reclaim some power over your current situation. Examples might be:
Can control — the way I choose to react to the current situation, my hygiene by washing my hands regularly, what I decide to eat, if I get any exercise, what I talk about in front of my children.
Can’t control — the Coronavirus, other people’s behaviour, the weather, having to be in lockdown, the economy, no sport on TV.
2. Limit the amount of times you check the news/social media It’s very easy to spend hours glued to the constant news updates or scrolling mindlessly through social media. Apply the tips below to manage your usage:
✦ Limit yourself to twice or a maximum of three times per day for a news/social media fix.
✦ Try to avoid checking it first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Instead do something more productive first thing like a gratitude practice or journal which will put you in a far better frame of mind for the day. Checking the news just before you go to bed may dial up feelings of anxiety which can then affect your quality of sleep. Sleep is super important in keeping us healthy which is especially important at the moment.
✦ When you feel the need to do this, ask yourself ‘what do I really need right now?’. Quite often it’s connection, so go hug a family member in your bubble or a pet, or FaceTime or call a friend (only if you’re calm — you don’t want to spread panic!).
✦ When you do check the news or social media, ask yourself afterwards ‘Do I feel better?’ or ‘What benefit am I getting from this?’. We quickly get into a habit loop and by becoming aware of the lack of reward, it’s easier to break that habit.
3. Practice Mindfulness Mindfulness is a very popular word right now, but what actually does it mean. One definition by John Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as ‘paying attention in the present moment, on purpose and non-judgementally’. The purpose of mindfulness is to change our relationship with our thoughts. We are not trying to change our thoughts. So we need to raise awareness but not judge ourselves with what we find. Below are a couple of super easy ways to practice mindfulness to help nip anxious feelings in the bud:
✦ Focus on your breath — there are numerous breathing techniques out there to choose from but one I fi nd particularly helpful is the 3-3-5 breath. Stop what you’re doing and bring your attention to your breath. Put your hand on your stomach and make your stomach extend when breathing (diaphragmatic or belly breathing). Then take a breath in for a slow count of 3, hold for a slow count of 3 and then exhale slowly for a count of 5. The exhale being longer than the inhale as well as the belly breathing, help to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the ‘rest & digest’ arm of your nervous system. Repeat the breath 10 times if possible. Notice how you feel (you will feel calmer but taking the time to notice how you feel and that you feel better will help to create this into a habit as you are aware of the reward — feeling better).
✦ Ground yourself — when you feel anxious, bringing your attention to something in the present helps to stop the anxiety taking hold and you getting lost in your thoughts. There are numerous ways to do this but one easy one is to concentrate on your feet. When you are aware that you’re starting to feel anxious, walk around and concentrate on your feet and the feeling when your foot hits the ground. Count your steps if this helps. Continue until you feel yourself calming down and then again, notice how you feel. Notice how you were able to gain control and that you do have the power to do so.
4. Get Moving! Research shows that exercise helps ease anxiety in the following ways:
✦ Engaging in exercise diverts your attention from what you were feeling anxious about.
✦ Getting your heart rate up changes the chemicals in your brain and increases the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals, such as serotonin.
✦ Exercise activates our Prefrontal Cortex (new brain) which I mentioned earlier is key to managing anxiety. This helps to control our old brain in analysing perceived threats.
✦ Moving your body decreases muscle tension which lowers the body contribution to feeling anxious.
Now you don’t have to run a marathon everyday to see these benefits. Pick some form of movement that you enjoy as you’re far more likely to do it regularly if this is the case. Aim to increase your heart rate, but you can do this from walking uphill or playing tag with your kids. Once you’ve completed your movement, notice how you feel and save that feeling to encourage you to keep moving!
5. Look after your health It’s very tempting to feel a bit sorry for yourself in the current situation and then look for ways to comfort yourself. Invariably though, this can lead to comforting yourself with alcohol, processed foods and a lot of Netflix. If this is what you resort to, just notice how you feel afterwards (you’re seeing a theme here right — we’re always looking to raise awareness). It might feel good every now and again, but repeatedly, you’ll find that this sort of behaviour creates more anxious feelings.
There’s a lot of emerging research behind the link between what we eat and the affect on our mental health. One such example is that 95% of our serotonin (feel good hormone) receptors are located in the lining of our stomachs and so we can maximise their impact on our mood by feeding them nutritious, whole foods and keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Compare how you feel eating healthily to not so healthily and remember that for next time you’re tempted by that ice cream or chocolate.
Summary These are just a few of many strategies to help cope with anxiety which I hope you find helpful. Remember the key is awareness. You can’t change anything if you’re not aware of it.
If you need any further help, support or guidance please get in touch.