Coping with Anxiety During Uncertain Times
While professionally I am a therapist specializing in treatment for anxiety disorders, I am also human. And as a human, brimming with thoughts, feelings and emotions, I find it both perplexing and distressing to have now spent nearly half a year in quarantine. COVID-19 has not only left most of us physically isolated within our homes, away from many friends and loved ones, but has also led to feelings of social isolation and disconnection. This uncertain period has resulted in feelings of a lack of control over our lives and our future, undoubtedly leading many to feel panicked, fearful and lonely. An additional layer of complexity and emotion has also been added on with states and companies reopening, corresponding with an influx in cases. As an individual who understands what it is like to both love and fear expressing difficult feelings, I believe the best way to support others and stay connected is through talking about our emotions. By embracing vulnerability, we can have real, meaningful conversations that normalize what we are each going through. My hope is that initiation of authentic communication will lead to people feeling less emotionally isolated and alone in their struggles.
An essential first step in this process is acceptance and acknowledgement of what is. It is true that COVID-19 has altered our daily routine. With this change can follow emotions such as sadness, grief, anxiety and fear. These feelings are valid and to be expected. While it is natural to want to push unpleasant emotions aside, emotions serve the important function of communicating a message to our brains. For instance, I often share with my patients that sadness and grief can reveal we have lost something meaningful, fear tells us something frightening may be ahead, and anger indicates we may have been wronged. Many of us are going through a roller coaster of emotions at this time, and if we tune into what we are feeling, we may start to understand that these emotions make sense and it is ok to be feeling this way in this moment.
I would like to introduce some strategies that may help with becoming more in tune with our emotions and relate to how we are feeling in a given moment, at a deeper level. The first strategy is adopting a practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state in which we can cultivate present moment awareness, in a non-judgmental and non-reactive way. This non-judgmental way of being is imperative in order to truly practice mindfulness. We are often quick to judge ourselves when we feel sad or anxious. We may rush to label how we are feeling as “bad,” telling ourselves that we “shouldn’t feel this way.” What if instead we shifted our language to something like, “I notice I’m feeling sad. Why might I be feeling this way?” By noticing our emotions in a curious way, rather than in a reactive and judgmental manner, we can curb the cycle of self-judgment in that moment. Self-compassion is another great way to relate to our emotions more gently. Some individuals find a mantra to repeat to help cultivate a sense of warmth and love towards oneself. Many people enjoy practicing self-compassion through meditation. One popular self-compassion meditation is called loving-kindness meditation or “metta.” There are also meditations to soothe the body, such as progressive muscle relaxation. These meditations can be accessed online through recordings on YouTube or through apps such as Headspace.
In light of Reflect’s dedication to sparking open and honest conversation, I believe it is important to speak candidly to others about the raw and difficult emotions we are experiencing. We are all grappling with emotions at various volumes and frequencies. As loving-kindness meditations explain, suffering is universal, and times like these only further highlight this point. It can be difficult, however, to know who to turn to during uncertain times, out of fear of causing others more pain. Yet I urge you, now more than ever, to take that leap of faith and reach out to someone to spark this type of conversation and lend an ear to support someone else. As Reflect has so poignantly stated, it would behoove us to view this time as one of “physical-distancing,” rather than “social-distancing,” as we all want to continue to feel connected and not alone while continuing to do our best to stay safe during this time.
With many people returning to campus or work in a remote fashion, it can be helpful to establish a new COVID-safe routine. Creating a routine allows us to feel more in control, which in turn may lessen anxiety’s impact. Setting an alarm for the same time each weekday and taking a walk around the block can replace taking your morning commute to work or class. Scheduling Zoom lunches with friends to simulate an old routine, or video chatting friends while playing games can provide an opportunity to stay connected. Finding activities that bring you joy, such as playing an instrument, watching a movie, or cooking, is also important. If a media break is needed, allowing times to turn off news updates. If you are passionate about a cause, finding the platform or space to advocate in and help make the world a better, fairer place. Putting phones down half an hour before bed and reading a book will give our eyes and mind a rest from the screen. I believe that bringing mindful awareness into our routine is an excellent way to stimulate our senses. This may include sitting down to enjoy a warm cup of coffee each morning, taking that cool shower after a run, listening to relaxing music, or applying lavender oil to pillows. Integrating exercise can help reduce stress, and meditation and yoga allow the mind to unwind.
I believe we can create a space in which we acknowledge the good, the bad and the ugly in our world, while also finding solace in commiserating during a time of universal suffering. Feelings of anxiety and sadness are expected during a time like this and do not need to be pushed aside. It is important to notice when these thoughts and feelings arise and acknowledge their presence and function under these circumstances. Although we may not yet know when a vaccine will be widely disseminated, or when quarantine will fully come to an end, by living our lives as mindfully and connected as we can, we can reduce anxiety’s impact and find ways to cope during this disconcerting time.
Danielle is a clinical psychology Ph.D. student at Boston University (BU). Danielle is originally from right outside Philadelphia and graduated from Emory University in 2015. After working as a research assistant for several years, Danielle received her Master’s degree from BU in 2019. She is currently conducting research in Dr. Stefan Hofmann's Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory. Danielle is finishing a practicum experience at BU's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, where she provides supervised cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness techniques for adults and holds an interest in college student mental health. This month, Danielle will begin a practicum placement at the McLean Behavioral Health Partial Hospital Program. In addition to utilizing CBT strategies, Danielle plans to integrate dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and emotion regulation techniques into group and individual treatment. Once she receives her doctorate, Danielle hopes to continue conducting research, teaching, and treating patients with anxiety and related disorders.