by Eric Goodman, PhD
Telling oneself not to be anxious during the COVID-19 pandemic is like trying to tell water not to be wet. These are anxious times. The question is not how can I be anxiety free right now, but how can I best manage the anxiety that shows up?
The buddha told a story of a soldier shot by an arrow during battle. It hurt! The soldier went on to curse his fate for his pain and being removed from the battle. Why me! he struggled mightily. The pain of this inner-struggle was like being shot by a second arrow—only this one was self-inflicted.
Anxiety, like the arrow, can be uncomfortable. We can call this “clean” discomfort, because it’s just what shows up. If we beat ourselves up and struggle against feeling anxious this serves only to intensify our suffering. We call this “dirty” discomfort because it lead to unnecessary suffering. Hating, fighting, and struggling to force ourselves to be anxiety-free tends to just turn up its intensity.
How to let go of “dirty” discomfort
When we catch ourselves fighting, struggling, and suffering with anxiety, we can choose a different response. By slowing things down and reminding ourselves that anxiety, beastly as it may feel, is doing its one job. It is trying to protect us in a world that has threats. It’s trying it’s best to help in its own glitchy way.
Rather than tense up and fight, we can try to hold it the way we might hold a crying young toddler who is frightened and upset. Even though the cries disturb our peace, we can choose to hold the child with gentle kindness.
Being mindful of how our bodies respond to anxiety is key to letting go of the struggle with anxiety:
Do a mindful body Scan
Take a moment and direct your attention inward as you scan the various muscles in your body.
Notice the extent that you are struggling with anxiety in your feet (tightening, fidgeting, or bracing). Soften and hold the anxiety gently. The goal is not to try to force your anxiety away, but to make a gentle space for your anxiety.
How about in your calves and upper legs? Can you ease up the fight there? Can make a softer space to hold your anxiety there?
How about your stomach muscles? If they are tense, not only are you increasing dirty discomfort, but you are also likely dysregulating your breathing, which for many triggers their anxiety to shout even louder. Allow your stomach muscles to soften as you hold your anxiety with more gentleness and less struggle.
Let go of the struggle in your hands, wrists, and forearms. Let go in your upper arms—biceps and triceps. Hold your anxiety with gentle kindness.
Now focus on your shoulders, chest, and upper back. Notice any tension or struggle in those areas and let that go as much as you can. It is not a matter of forcing something away but making a soft space for what is already there.
Finally, notice any struggle in your neck, jaw, lips, cheeks, eyes, forehead and scalp. Take a deep breath and then let go of bracing, tension, or fidgeting in those areas as you slowly release the breath. Allow the muscles surrounding those areas to soften.
Now, notice the different experience you are having with your anxiety after letting go of doing battle with it and instead holding it with gentle compassion. Notice changes in how much suffering you were experiencing before compared with now.
You can repeat this as often as you’d like.
Make a more peaceful home for your anxiety
Our nervous systems are home to our anxiety. How we treat our nervous systems during the COVID-19 emotional rollercoaster ride plays a large role in how intense our anxiety will be. Taking steps towards a calmer overall nervous system provides our anxiety a more peaceful place to do its job of trying to keep us safe. A more peaceful home equals less anxious reactivity.
We can give our anxiety a more peaceful home by:
Getting adequate sleep: Even one poor night of sleep can turn up the howling of our anxiety beasts by 30%. Getting a good night’s sleep can be tough during stressful time. Don’t try to force sleep. Instead, it can be helpful to maintain a regular bedtime and nightly routine and to get up and moving around the same time each day. Our beds should be designated a news, technology, and work-free free zone.
Minimizing your daily intake of COVID-19 news: The news serves a vital role in keeping us informed, but it also serves to rev up our nervous systems and propel our anxiety into a fight or flight frenzy. It is good to take in enough news so that we can take specific actions needed to protect ourselves and our loved ones–and tend to others in need. However, keeping the news on throughout the day needlessly serves to ramp up your anxiety.
Limiting substances that increase anxiety: Many people fuel their days with stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine. Some people are more sensitive to these substances than others—so use your best judgement. If it tweaks your nervous system you may want to consider decaffeinated drinks for a while. Others may be more tempted by alcohol to calm their stress during COVID. While it may be calming in the moment, people can experience a rebound in heightened anxiety afterwards. Cannabis may calm some nervous systems down, but for others it can cause powerful panic attacks.
Maintaining a reasonable (but not perfectionistic) diet: What we eat impacts our nervous system. Diets filled with sugar and other simple carbohydrates create fluctuations in blood sugar that can agitate our nervous systems. Our anxiety will have calmer homes if our bodies are fueled with a range of healthy foods (in addition to limited treats). However, getting perfectionistic about it will only serve to ramp up our distress. Right now, we must do the best we can with more limited and unpredictable food sources.
Checking in with your breathing regularly: It is normal for stress to tighten up our muscles, including abdominal muscles. If our stomach muscles are tight then we end up breathing shallowly, which can make our anxiety much more irritable. We can set a reminder to soften our abdominal muscles when we catch them being tense. We feel more grounded and relaxed when we allow breathing to flow in and out more slowly and evenly, perhaps even lingering on the exhale (breathe in for a count of 4-6 and out for a count of 6-8). There are many wonderful breathing apps and videos that can help train more optimal breathing patterns.
Finding pleasant or purposeful activities to load your day: The least helpful thing we can do during the pandemic is to remain sedentary while spending the day watching the news, scrolling social media, and waiting for the world to return to “normal.
What would a reasonably well-lived day look like during COVID? Rather than living for how things used to be or how we wished they were, we can choose to live now the best way we can. We can ask ourselves:
Who can you connect with over the phone or internet?
What pleasurable and productive tasks can I build into a routine?
Is there some small way I can be helpful or supportive to others?
Then we can begin to structure the most meaningful life we can, given things as they are now.
Taking time to soothe your nervous system: Building mindfulness exercises (like meditation, yoga, or simply washing the dishes mindfully) can help soothe the anxiety beast within. In addition, there are countless relaxation, imagery, and breathing exercises that can be quite brief. Mixing them into our day can keep our anxiety engines revving at a lower level. Exercises are readily available in apps such as Headspace, Insight Time, or YouTube. Try several them and see which ones help with feeling more relaxed or grounded. What’s helpful for one person may not work for another so try multiple and keep using the ones that are helpful. Rather than waiting for anxiety to howl, we can practice them daily to keep our nervous systems more regulated.
Letting go of perfection: There is no one right way to cope with the emotional challenges that living in the time of COVID-19 presents. We need to be careful not to compare how we feel on the inside (the range of up and down emotions and fears) with the one-sided, fictional images posted on social media of people coping perfectly. Instead, we can allow ourselves to aspire to good-enough for now. Aspiring for perfect now is likely to more heap stress onto this already challenging situation.
Seeking Balance through connection: Connecting with others in a caring way soothes our inner anxiety beasts. This is one of the reasons that social distancing has led to louder anxiety levels. Finding new and creative ways to safely connect with other people has never been more important. So, try out the virtual dinner party with friends and family. Play games with others online. Perhaps join a virtual book club. Even virtual compassionate connections can calm our nervous systems.
Teach your Anxiety, rather than fight with it
Our anxiety beasts are teachable, though they are imperfect pupils. They easily learn that something is dangerous, but it is more difficult for them to learn that something is safe. For example, most of us, overnight, learned to be wary of COVID contamination.
For many of us, our anxiety can overlearn the threat of contamination and go far beyond CDC guidelines and into the realm of superstition. For example, it is recommended to wash our hands for 20 seconds prior to eating. If we are washing our hands mid-meal or directly afterwards, we are exceeding current recommended guidelines. The risk is that our anxiety learns to protect us from reasonably safe situations. This can take the normal heightened anxiety that most of us are experiencing and grow it into a full-blown phobia.
Rather than thinking about anxiety as a villain to fight with, we can think about it as a glitchy lifelong inner companion. We can choose to play an active role in teaching it what is reasonably safe versus dangerous. That way, our anxiety will howl less often and less intensely in safe situations.
Anxiety after COVID
We will emerge from the narrow confines imposed by the COVID pandemic. There will be losses to grieve, trauma to be processed, and heroes to celebrate. And there will be anxiety—our lifelong glitchy companion. I imagine that our inner anxiety beasts will be extra cautious about social gatherings, travel, and close physical proximity to others. They may even try to convince us to maintain social distancing even when closeness is no longer a threat.
Then at our own pace, we will have the opportunity to take our inner companions by the hand and gently guide them (while they initially howl in protest) and teach them that life, people, and their air we breathe is once again safe.
About the Author
Dr. Eric Goodman is a clinical psychologist and anxiety disorders and OCD specialist. He has a practice in San Luis Obispo, California and is a lecturer in the Psychology and Child Development department at California Polytechnic State University . He is author of the upcoming book Your Anxiety Beast and You: A Compassionate Guide for Living in an Increasingly Anxious World (May 2020).
Connect with him on Twitter @DrEricGoodman
Illustration by Louise Gardner and was reprinted with permission