To say that what the world and our communities are going through right now with the coronavirus pandemic (aka COVID-19) is uncertain feels like a supreme understatement. The extreme change in our regular routines and limited access to everyday activities, the physical distance – especially for those whose families live in other states or countries, the closure of businesses, the loss of jobs, the fear of illness…it’s a lot to deal with. And it can trigger a lot of anxious feelings. I know for me, I’ve had days where I’ve struggled. Where I’ve sat at my computer trying to get through a day of work with some semblance of normalcy, only to burst into tears because I can’t see my 92-year-old grandmother or I can’t hug my mother, or I’m worried that if I get sick I could infect my doctor housemate and render her useless for two weeks.
But the point of this isn’t to collectively spiral even further. I just wanted to let you know that if you are feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and at the end of your rope, you’re not alone. In fact, feeling the way you feel right now is completely normal. “It is a very reasonable response to be having during this pandemic,” says Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno. “There is a lot of uncertainty during these unprecedented times, and there is a collective nervousness about what’s to come. A lot of our normalcy hangs in the balance.”
Normal as it may be, feeling anxious and stressed – especially for prolonged periods – is awful and hard, and so we asked Sokarno for her tips on how to recognise the feelings of anxiety and what you and your loved ones can do to help reduce it and avoid the triggers.
We’ve all felt stressed, flustered or frustrated at multiple points in our lives, but how do you know if you’ve crossed into territory of anxiety? Sokarno lists the common symptoms of anxiety as “Heightened arousal, increased startle response, hyperventilation, increased heart palpitations, chest tightness, sweating profusely, shakiness, headaches, upset stomach, [and] sweaty palms.”
Managing symptoms of anxiety in the short-term
If you’re feeling any of the above symptoms, you’ll obviously want to do what you can to feel better, and there are some things you can do to ease those feelings in the short-term. Here are Sokarno’s tips:
1/ Physical exertion of anxious energy (e.g. running, skipping, jumping etc)
2/ Diaphragmatic breathing techniques
4/ Thought journaling
5/ Engaging your intelligence or creativity
6/ Check in with a friend/family member
Managing symptoms of anxiety in the long-term
Anxiety, sadly, isn’t always so easy to kick and it’s not always linear. Some days you may be feeling great, other days you may not be able to shake the feelings of tightness in your chest, which is why it’s important to have a long-term plan to manage your mental health and emotional state. The first and an incredibly important step is to identify your triggers and understand your physiological responses – this will go a long way in helping you manage your anxiety. As for actions you can take, incorporating thought journaling into your daily routine will help, and Sokarno also recommends exercising regularly (even if for now that means a socially-distanced walk in the park, or a quick routine in your backyard or lounge room), having a dedicated self-care routine that you stick to, regular meditation, and probably most importantly, engaging in therapy. At the moment some therapists and health care providers are offering online consultations.
Trying to manage the different triggers of anxiety
When it comes to the triggers associated with the coronavirus pandemic, some people may find the physical distance hardest to deal with, while others may be struggling because of a loss of income, the loss of regular routine or catching the virus itself, and Sokarno has some helpful advice on how to approach what’s affecting you most.
“With the pandemic itself, we need to focus on the things we can actively do to do our part in managing the spread of infection. We need to source information from reliable channels and maintain how much information we are absorbing so we do not become overloaded.
Isolation and distance are causing feelings of hopelessness/helplessness. Confinement to our homes may feel like we are disconnected, but we can still keep in touch without keeping in ‘touch’. Check in with friends and family through voice/video calls; share your concerns. There is a connectedness in feeling the same thing as everyone else.
Look into government assistance and alternatives, manage things day by day, open communication lines with real estate agents, gas, electricity and water companies. Engage in productive management of your situations and get answers rather than dwelling on assumptions.
Maintain normalcy as much as possible, schedule your day from the moment you wake up, set goals, have routines, create purpose in your day,” she says.
And for those who are doing their absolute best to follow guidelines to self-isolate, social distance and maintain hand hygiene, that may come with its own triggers, too – things like discomfort or feeling tense about being in public to get groceries or medication, or living in an apartment building and being worried to touch doors or elevator buttons.
Sokarno advises, “Rationalise the panicked thoughts with evidence and logical actions. Wearing gloves whilst grocery shopping, or if you don’t have access to them ensure you wash your hands thoroughly with hot soapy water after grocery shopping and hand sanitise if possible. Try to not touch door handles with your hands, rather with your elbow or use a tissue and throw it away.” As she says, anxiety is based around over-thinking, over-analysing and catastrophising situations, so if you can do your best to take logical action, you can hopefully minimise those negative feelings.
How you can help your loved ones
If those close to you are suffering from anxious thoughts and experiencing the symptoms mentioned, it can feel hard to help. But Sokarno has some useful advice for you.
“Encourage your loved ones that they are not alone in this and that we are all still connected in moving through a difficult time together. Help them rationalise their thoughts with empathetic listening and using fact over feelings to validate their thoughts. Try and be as logical and to-the-point without making them feel dismissed or avoided. [Saying things like], ‘I hear what you are saying, I know there is so much uncertainty but let’s take this day by day’, ‘I’m in this with you, we are going to get through this together’, ‘Let’s only take on enough information that we can handle and work through it effectively’ [can help].”
How to still stay connected when you have to be so far apart
One of the best things you can do right now is to stay at home and keep your distance, but when you’re experiencing feelings of sadness and loneliness because you’re in isolation or quarantined, it feels really hard to stay connected to friends and family.
Here’s Sokarno’s hitlist of how you can still keep as close as possible to your loved ones.
1/ Check in via FaceTime/ Skype calls
2/ Have a group Zoom meeting and play a card game
3/ Engage in other positive conversations [not related to the pandemic]
4/ Set self-isolation goals with one another [ed note: such as learning how to cross-stitch]
5/ Start a book club
6/ Start a cooking club
And if you haven’t already, join the houseparty app – it’s an incredibly fun and addictive way to stay in touch with friends and find some relief in all this madness.
What you should avoid doing as it could be exacerbating anxious feelings
Some of your behaviours may unknowingly be contributing to your mental health struggles, so Sokarno recommends avoiding drinking caffeinated drinks, like coffee, tea, energy drinks, or gym pre-workouts, doing drugs, drinking alcohol, and most of all (and as best you can), dwelling on feelings of ‘doom’.
Another big thing is trying not to overload on stimuli of fake news, and if needed, limiting the COVID-related content you’re consuming.
“Check in with scientific and government outlets only, turn off Facebook notifications, don’t engage in emotion-driven discussions on social media, limit the times you check in with what’s happening to a manageable limit,” suggest Sokarno.
For me personally, I’m choosing to watch less of the videos about what’s happening in Italian hospitals and checking on death rates, and intead I’m consuming more of the positive messages and optimistic views. The memes also help, so here are some of my favourite ones if you need a bit of a smile and a laugh.
Some tools to help you get through
We are lucky enough to live in an age where help is literally in the palm of our hands and Sokarno has some great recommendations for apps and resources that can help you in times of anxiety:
3/ Smiling Mind
4/ Meditation apps (like the other Headspace)
5/ Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique videos. Here’s an exampled of one, but there are so many online:
And of course, seeing a therapist or a psychologist can really help. Given our unique circumstances right now, you may not be able to see them in person, but as mentioned, many are offering online consults. It’s also a good idea to visit your GP (if you’re well enough to go), as they may have some advice and can offer referrals.
Also, please keep in mind proper practices right now to limit the spread of the coronavirus and follow government guidelines. Remember to wash your hands frequently (for at least 20 seconds) – especially if you’re about to touch your face or eat, and keep at least 1.5 metres between you and those around you.
If you think you may have coronavirus, either call your doctor (don’t just drop in as we guarantee your GP’s office is pretty overwhelmed right now) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you’re struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.
Looking to get into regular meditation? Here are our meditation tips for beginners.
Main image credit: @bambilegit