By Kane Tung, PhD and Xinyu Sun
We are coming to realize what the experts have known: This is not a blizzard that will blow over in a few days but something that has hold of the world and will take a few months to get over. And with that realization is the growing fear. Was 8 feet enough distance from that person with a runny nose? Was it worth it to leave the confines of my home to get groceries? What will happen to others when I’m sick?
Step 1: Anxiety is Good
The first step of managing anxiety is understanding that Anxiety is not a bad thing to get rid of or control. It is nature’s smoke alarm. You don’t, as the meme goes, take out the batteries to your CO detector, because the siren is giving you a headache and making you sleepy.
Fearlessness is not Courage. Fearlessness is simply the lack of awareness or numbness to risks or danger, rather than an admirable achievement of will. Courage on the other hand requires there to be anxiety or fear. A movie quote sums it up best: “It’s not brave, if you’re not scared.” (Roos, D., Bounce, 2000)
You are feeling scared and anxious, probably because this is a scary and anxious situation. Most people will turn out okay, but this, in a way, is becoming a viral game of Russian Roulette. Making space for and understanding your anxiety is not just about coping – it is figuring out how to make it part of the team instead of a problem for the team. And like an attention-neglected child, the more you ignore it the more it will scream.
Step 2: Identifying your triggers
Once you have realized you’re not crazy for feeling anxiety, it’s time to understand it. At this point you should identify any easy triggers for your fear. What triggers your anxiety? Stepping out of your home? When someone gets too close? Just thinking about your grandparents? When the 10th post about COVID deaths pop up on your social media feed? Make a list of those triggers in order of anxiety levels.
Once you have identified your triggers, you want to consider and categorize which ones you would want to work out, which ones are resolvable, which ones are irrational (and possibly unsolvable) which ones are avoidable, and which ones you need to power through.
Self-talk – that is, having a dialogue with yourself out loud – helps the brain organize and analyze each trigger and fear clearly and concretely before going on to the next step, so go ahead and talk it out when you recognize a trigger is being activated, so you can figure it where to go for your next step.
Step 3: Problem-solving your Anxiety
Here is where anxiety is doing what it is designed to. This is where it pushes you to do what you can when you can to improve your situation. With COVID-19 as with many other things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cures. So, practice social distancing: stay away from large gatherings. Reduce the frequency of leaving your home. Monitor your health and hygiene. Learn how to wear a facial mask correctly. The list goes on. If you know you are taking good care of yourself it becomes a stepping stone for problem-solving the next level of anxieties: work stress, relationships, finances. (We’ll come back to that later.)
Step 4: Mindfulness. Surfing the moment.
“Life is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.” – Horace Walpole.
One of the functions of mindfulness which has gained popularity for its effectiveness is the variation of that quote: “Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a gracefully observed chaos for those surfing on top of the wave of now.” Mindfulness is not about feeling relaxed or feeling better, although being relaxed or better can help being Mindful. Mindfulness is being better at feeling to fully be aware of the now without letting it become to deeply of who we are.
Whole libraries can be (and are) filled with what Mindfulness is, but here are some exercises to bring your body and mind in sync with the moment rather than with the feeling of anxiety.
- Diaphragmic breathing / Deep breathing – Deep breathing is not about taking a deep breath. It’s about breathing into your belly rather than into your chest and is a secret of many opera singers before the microphone was invented. It’s a body hack that tells your body to turn off the fight or flight response. There are many Youtube videos that show how to do this well. Here’s one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UB3tSaiEbNY
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation – Take a minute to tense one specific part of your body, starting with your forehead really hard (but don’t hurt yourself), then let it go and let that muscle be as loose as a wet noodle. Then do this with your cheeks. Then your jaw. Then your shoulders, and so on all the way down to your toes. This hacks your brain to be conscious what it feels like to be really tense and at the same time forces your muscles to loosen up.
- One-Mindedness – Everyone gets these great “Shower ideas” – profound or creative thoughts which pop in your head while taking a shower. Why does it happen? In truth, we all engage in a One-Mindedness exercise without even knowing it. One-mindedness involves losing yourself completely in a task which needs our attention, but simple enough so it doesn’t require thought, such as washing the dishes, sweeping the floor. For those who have minds “too busy” to clear or meditate, this can be an excellent way of letting your thoughts wander. Find an activity, game, or puzzle, that you are so good at, you don’t need to focus on it. Some examples are: gardening, tossing a ball against a wall, knitting, Solitaire, Minesweeper, Sudoku, etc.
- Radical Acceptance – Our brain mechanisms work on a subjective – not an objective – level. How good the salary you’re offered depends on what salary you’re used to. Is this bad? Am I doing well? Is it hot in here? is all based on what we’re used to or past expectations. According to Anais Nin, “We don’t see things as they We see things the way we are.” – The “we” being based on our experiences what is good enough and what needs more work, for example. Radical acceptance is a multi-step thought experiment that has you imagine what would happen if you accept things to happen completely different from your expectations or control. This then allows you to see the opportunity to exit your own bubble of controlled reality and possibly even take the best of both worlds — of what you make happen and what you allow to happen.. For more on Radical Acceptance, you can start here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pieces-mind/201312/three-blocks-radical-acceptance
Of course there are many more Mindfulness exercises – some which are more effective, some which are less – depending on each person, which is a Google search away.
In Radical Acceptance: Making a space for your COVID-19 Anxiety, Part 2, we will go over how to continue work on anxiety by working on your Cognitive Biases, The fine art of distraction and compartmentalization, Seeing the Big Picture using Reframing, problem-solving part 2 and even a little self-assessment, so check back.