I feel scared about COVID-19 – there’s so much we don’t know and newer, scarier things come to light every day. This fear feeds my anxiety. I think part of the problem is I have more time to think about ‘what-ifs’ – anytime I’m bored or free, I think, I get anxious. It stops me from doing anything except thinking of worst-case scenarios and getting more anxious. How can I break this vicious cycle?
Sneha John, Counselling Psychologist, LifeWorks Holistic Counselling Centre, Dubai
Thank you for reaching out to seek help for this concern. I appreciate your openness and vulnerability in sharing how you feel currently. As we settle into a new way of living amidst COVID-19, we may be feeling anxious, fearful, confused, sad and frustrated. The first step to breaking this vicious cycle is to acknowledge how you are feeling and wanting to get better, both of which you have expressed. Hence, here a few ways which could help you channel the anxiety in healthy ways:
Channel your anxious energy into action
Anxiety is a form of energy, also known as nervous energy. The more we allow anxious energy to build up inside of us, the less we are able to think clearly, concentrate or make decisions. We would frequently feel restless, on the edge and overwhelmed. Some people feel this way for majority of their day without the presence of a known trigger.
As we allow ourselves to remain in the anxious state, we may experience physical symptoms such as dry mouth, palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness and nausea. Hence, it would helpful for you to take a moment to stop the task at hand when you find yourself in the vicious cycle.
Take a deep breath in, inhale through the nose, hold your breath, count till 5 slowly and exhale through the mouth. You may notice the first few breaths would be shallow. That’s normal. Continue doing this exercise until you notice your breathing return to normal. While you do the breathing exercise, observe how you are feeling and what is going on around you.
Many times, while in a state of constant anxiety, we may be unable to notice things that surround us and may be fixated on the unhelpful thought.
Turn feelings into facts
This can be done by spending some time writing down the ‘what ifs’ that arise in your mind with regards to COVID-19. Beside the negative what ifs, write down whether these are assumptions or facts. For example, you may think, ‘what if I get sick? I won’t be able to recover.’ This may be an example of an assumption. The fact in this case would be that you are doing all the necessary steps to stay safe and you will remain healthy.
Also, ask yourself whether your worry is based on things you can or cannot control. If your worry is around things that can be controlled such as ‘I am worried that I will fall sick when I go out grocery shopping.’ This could be a worry that can be controlled. You may act on this worry proactively by taking all the necessary precautions and going to a less crowded store during quiet times. The mind may continue to spiral down into several other thoughts by telling you that what you are doing is just not enough. However, remember, this is simply a thought not a fact.
Continue doing just-enough without overdoing the precautions. You will begin to notice a significant change in the anxiety levels and your overall health.
Limit the information you take in
There are certain actions, when performed frequently, that can fuel anxiety about health. Focusing too much on bodily symptoms, and relying on Dr. Google can consume us with anxious thoughts and panic. Being aware of these behaviours, understanding how they are making you feel, and replacing them with more helpful coping strategies can alleviate feelings of anxiety.
Take it one day a time
Try to focus on the here and now- not the past and not the future. Take it one day at a time and try not planning too far into the future. To start with, I would encourage you to spend 5 minutes on an activity that you can be fully focused on. Our minds may wander initially, however practice doing this on a daily basis. This could be a mindful eating, shower or brushing your teeth. Allow thoughts to come and go while focusing your attention on the action that you are doing. As you practice this, you may increase the time spent on this activity gradually. The goal of this activity would be to slowly allow us to focus on what we are doing without getting trapped in the vicious cycle of anxiety.
Sweat it out
As anxiety is energy, we can put good use to that energy by exercising. Exercise has been shown to release certain hormones in our body called endorphins that help us reduce stress, anxiety, boost self-esteem and improve sleep. It will also help protect your mental health and immune system.
A good support system makes all the difference
It can make a huge difference when we connect with people who spur us on with encouragement and words of affirmation. Invest in a good support system of family and friends who can help you on your journey to developing healthy thinking styles. Instead of discussing negative reports, spend time discussing new activities you do on a daily basis, values that are helping you stay strong and learning how they are spending their time. With digital platforms available, it would be helpful if you can set aside some time during the week to reconnect with your close circle of friends and family. You may even reach out to those you haven’t talked to in a while.
With extra time available, it provides a great opportunity for us to strengthen our core values. Each of us have certain values such as generosity, wisdom, humour, kindness, strength, creativity or love. These values can become our inner strengths if utilised. For example, you value kindness, you could positively utilise this value by reaching out to those in your inner circle (like a neighbour or a family member) with words or acts of kindness. As you do this, take time to reflect on the experience, how you felt while doing this and appreciate yourself.
Self-love can be tricky at times. However, in order to get through this time, remember to feed yourself with uplifting internal dialogues. Even as self-critical thoughts arise (I will never get through this), practice noticing them and turning them into alternate thoughts of self-love (I am finding this time stressful. I am not alone, there are several others who are also feeling the same way. I will be kind to myself). Hence, utilize your time doing things that build you up positively. This could be picking up a new course, language or a hobby. You may even allocate 10 mins in your day where you do nothing at all and simply reflect on things that you are grateful for during the day.
It’s ok to ask for help
If you find yourself struggling emotionally and unable to cope, I would encourage you to consider professional support. By doing so, you would need to navigate through anxiety all alone. A qualified mental health professional can help you learning healthy coping strategies to manage the anxiety.
If you have questions that you would like answered by a mental health professional in the UAE, please write in to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, please let us know if you'd rather stay anonymous.
Disclaimer: This blog is a conversation and is not an alternative for treatment. The recommendations and suggestions offered by our panel of doctors are their own and Gulf News will not take any responsibility for the advice they provide.