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Anxiety in a time of COVID Part 1: The Perfect Storm for Anyone with Anxiety

Are you wondering why so many people who don’t have COVID-19, or even know anyone who has been diagnosed are seeing a spike in feelings of anxiety? It’s not just because of the many changes in our communities and around the world since the pandemic began: over 26 million Americans were out of work, K-12 schools and universities nationwide closed overnight and many of us spent weeks or months inside our homes and yards not socializing. However,change and stress are not the main sources that fuel anxiety, they are simply kindling. The real lighter fluid and gasoline is UNCERTAINTY.

When is school going to start back up? What is that going to be like? Will students really wear a mask all day?
How long until we REALLY know how this disease affects people?
What if someone I care about gets COVID-19 and dies?
What if I test positive for COVID-19 and have to stay home for 14 days?

All of these are valid concerns and questions. It is normal to feel some anxiety in new situations,like starting a new school year, a new job, moving to a new place or living through a worldwide pandemic for the first time. Uncertainty lies underneath all of these situations and questions. We often think, “If I have answers and information I can be prepared, and my anxiety will calm down.” It might, for like a minute. But that doesn’t prevent uncertainty popping up in other areas of our life, on a regular basis. (More on that in my next post).

Anxiety serves a very important function of protecting us. It’s the feeling that tells us we should put our seat belt on when we get into a car or wash our hands after touching common surfaces in public.

However, for some of us, anxiety has too much power and control in our lives. It acts as a bossy, know-it-all alarm and yells loudly about horrible, scary things that could (but are not likely to) happen and that is when it becomes problematic. It often starts with one worry or concern and quickly spirals into 10 worries or more. Remember, ANXIETY LOVES UNCERTAINTY. It feeds on it and grows exponentially like Mentos dropped in a Coke bottle:

“What if people don’t wear masks and I get sick? What if I spread it to my sweet old neighbor (who I have never talked to or met) who walks her dog and she dies and its my fault? What if all my friends get COVID-19 from me and then they don’t want to be my friend anymore? Who am I going to sit with at lunch? What if we don’t ever go back to school?!!! How am I going to get into college and get a good job? What if this pandemic never ends…?” And on and on it spirals.

Anxious thoughts often have a small grain of truth in them and frequently center around a possible, but unlikely, scenario or chain of events.

So, what can we do to handle so much uncertainty in our lives and manage out of control anxiety? It starts with externalizing the anxious thoughts and worry, (it’s not you, it’s the anxiety that hangs out with you) predicting when it will show up and creating phrases to say back to and refute the worry.

Example: “Listen anxiety, I knew you were going to show up when I went to school today, but none of the bad things you predict EVER happen. I don’t need you right now, you can go away.”

When we predict the anxiety, we won’t feel blindsided by it and we already know it’s anxiety overreacting. In my next post, I will go into more detail about how to access the resources within ourselves we all have to manage bossy, know-it-all anxious thoughts and retrain our brain to be more helpful and accurate instead of a Chicken Little alarm clock.

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Nine Minutes A Day to Strengthen Your Relationships.

The world is still reeling from COVID-19 and the strict new guidelines of proper social etiquette. It is difficult to emotionally connect with someone when you are not allowed to touch them, and sometimes cannot see most of their face. We are all adjusting to the new and needed guidelines that keep our physical health safe. In the meantime several people are noticing a severe decline in their emotional intimacy with friends and partners.  There is an innate desire for us to connect with people around us, and yet people are having a difficult time doing that these days.

May I suggest a nine minute daily exercise for you to participate in that can strengthen your relationship with your partner, children, and friends? Everyday, we have several times in which we say hello and goodbye to someone. In the morning, we say hello for the day to our children and if we have one, our partner. We say goodbye when we leave for work or school. Hello, again, when we come back from school or work. And goodbye, again, when we go to bed. With friends at work we have the hello when we arrive, and when we leave. With the people that live in your house: I challenge you to make good morning an event. Look your children and spouse in the eyes and give them a hug. Ask them how they slept. Try and connect on a physical and emotional level. It will only take three minutes. When your kids or spouse gets home from school and work do the same thing. Look them in the eyes, give them a hug, and ask them how their day was. Sit and listen to them. It will take about three minutes. Before you go to bed look your spouse and children in the eyes and hug them. Ask them what their favorite part of the day was. It will take about three minutes. We are now up to nine minutes of connection time you have just had with your spouse or children. That makes a huge difference in feeling connected to someone! It will add a special dimension to your relationships with your spouse and children. Sometimes it may take longer, than nine minutes, but the reward will be well worth it.     

The same can be done with co workers. Instead of greeting someone with a quick hello, stop and be physically and emotionally present. You cannot get close to them, and often a mask will be in the way. You can still connect with that person! Look them in the eyes. Ask them how they are doing and lean in, showing that you care and you are interested in what they are saying. When you leave to go home, check in with those co workers. Take a few minutes to again, ask them about plans for the evening. Ask them about their children, spouse, or hobby. This may seem like an easy task, but again one that will reap great rewards as you connect emotionally with the people you work with. 

As always, watch your own emotional health. People all over the world are feeling disconnected from each other. If you are feeling overwhelmed and depressed, there is always help out there for you! Good luck as you try out this new social experiment of connection!

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