by Sara A Showalter Van Tongeren
How to practically cope with increasing anxiety during this time
Source: Melanie Wasser/Unsplash
So much in our world has changed since I wrote my last post. And yet, the realities of our existential fears still persist and may be more evident than ever. The anxiety of this world continues to remain palpable – the empty shelves, the sickness, the isolation, death, and the reality of the unknown future. This week, I have been reflecting on the increased anxiety that we feel as humans when there is a threat to our well-being. We have a natural instinct to turn inward, to plan, to gather supplies, to be on high alert. And we have a natural instinct that causes us to feel fear in our bodies. All of these instincts are a result of being faced with four core existential fears (loss of control, challenges to our identity, isolation, and ultimately, our fear of death).1,2 The COVID-19 pandemic hits across all of our existential fears. When we are faced with these fears, we are confronted with information—and what we do with that information matters. As a therapist, I wanted to provide practical ways of coping with these fears and how we can use these fears to help us move forward.
1. Use your fear as information: Acknowledge that you are feeling a feeling. Do not ignore it, honor it, and ask yourself—”What is is this feeling trying to tell me?” For example, if you are feeling exhausted, increased pounding in your chest, inability to stop intrusive thoughts, take a deep breath, acknowledge these feelings and sit with them for a moment to say, “What is my concern here?” Are you afraid of losing work, losing your health, of not knowing what the future holds? Reflect and then begin to see what you can reasonably do with that information. Sometimes all we can do is acknowledge it (i.e., I do not have control over if my college classes are cancelled) and other times we can realize what we do have control over and what we don’t (i.e., I can wash my hands and keep limited social contact, but I cannot ultimately control whether I am exposed to illness). If you allow yourself to use your feelings as information, you can learn something from yourself. Feelings are there for a reason and often do not come from nowhere.
2. Practice acceptance: This may be the hardest step. We often do not want to accept “what is” and we would rather live in an alternate reality of “what we want life to be.” The truth is many will get sick, many will die, and we do not know what the future holds. When we begin with this reality, we can move toward “what is.” We can ground ourselves toward the truth and act accordingly. We wash our hands, we stay home, we connect virtually with those we love and express those feelings. We can begin to acknowledge our existential fears as facts and not fears.
3. Find connection: Talk to people in your life and connect with them. Use virtual means and schedule a hangout. Share your concerns, your struggles. Are there people in your life that are adding to your stress? Give yourself permission to take a break. Do you have someone in your life that will listen to you? Can you find something to talk about that you both can share together that is about something other than this crisis alone? Talk about your favorite show you are watching or the book you are reading. Make this an intention to connect. We are all in the midst of this experience and we might just be able to learn something from each other.
4. Use grounding techniques: When we are in a state of crisis, our body is telling us something. It is telling us to pay attention to the threats around us. This is a protective, natural response of being human. What makes a pandemic so unique is that our bodies are designed to alert us to these threats in short bursts, and cannot sustain threat-signals for an extended period of time. This can create fatigue, exhaustion, and just plain “foggy-headedness.” So you need to ground your body. This is a natural way to signal to your body that it is safe. Grounding techniques are universal and involve our five senses. Breathe deeply with your body in a child’s pose, or lay on the ground with your body on your back stretching like it is waking out of bed and practice deep belly breathing for two minutes. Notice your breath as it moves in and out. Let your thoughts come and go. Do not hold onto them, just notice them. Another grounding technique is called just notice them. Another grounding technique is called progressive muscle relaxation. You can google that to find the specific movements, but it can be as simple as squeezing your muscles tightly as you inhale and releasing your muscles as you exhale. Repeat. Notice your body and your mind.
5. Take a break when you can: Give yourself permission to take a break from the news, from fear and worry. Allow yourself to immerse yourself in a hobby like drawing, listening to music, reading a book, talking with a friend. Allow yourself to laugh and to be in the present moment. Put your phone in a drawer. Sit on your porch and see if you can hear the birds sing. Put “bookends” on your thoughts and when they start to circle back to worry or fear, notice it and then direct your mind to whatever you are doing in that moment. Be intentional about this practice. You do not need to be productive, you just need to feel and be. In fact, we can’t help it. I am just asking you to notice being human.
I hope this is helpful to you during this time. We are in this together. And we need each other. People react to fear in various ways—hoarding, becoming rigid, denial, anger—all various forms of fight, flight, or freeze. In my next post, I will explore this more. But for today, acknowledge what your fears might be trying to tell you. And lean in, trusting that your body is good and trying to tell you something. Listen to reality and ground yourself in your body. Immerse yourself where you are mean to be. Existential fears are a part of our life. We just may have realized it for the first time. Welcome. This is what it means to be fully alive.