7 Strategies for Managing Anxiety in our “New Normal” World
Anxiety, in essence, is an emotional response to threat. Anxious symptoms may be felt in the body by way of a rapidly increasing heart rate, muscle tension or perhaps shakiness. Thoughts tend to centre on how to avoid or overcome the threat and worrying can increase when coping with the situation is deemed too difficult. As worry continues, anxiety continues to increase.
With restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 being eased, more of us are being encouraged to return to workplaces, to shops and bars and restaurants, to places where we used to socialise freely. The “new normal” means adopting new ways of being around other people, of living our lives in a socially considerate manner that minimises the chances of spreading or contracting the virus.
The need to move back into society, however closely we follow the rules, can still feel overwhelming when catastrophic thoughts and “what if’s” make staying at home feel a safer option. Employing anxiety management and distraction techniques can be useful in reducing the cognitive, physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety that result in unhelpful behavioural responses. The techniques described here are not designed to avoid exposure to feared situations, such as going to the shops. They are ways to briefly manage increased emotional stimulation and give the body a chance to calm down. The aim is not to eliminate all anxiety (that would be dangerous indeed!) but to control it in a way that enables a person to re-integrate with life in the world outside without undue fear or discomfort.
Here are some strategies that you may find helpful:
1. Grounding the self in the present, head high, eyes open, can provide a safe anchoring through which you are able to open up to new experiences rather than remain caught up in catastrophic thoughts. Try the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique. Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. Take your time with this exercise, fully engaging your senses.
2. Go for a mindful walk or run, remaining fully present in the experience, for example, the feel of your feet in your running shoes, the sound of your shoes touching the pavement, how the sun or rain or wind feels on your face and body. If you start to have anxious thoughts, gently acknowledge them, send them away and return to your present experience of walking or running.
3. Create a self-soothe playlist on your phone to listen to when your emotional need is for calm and comfort.
4. Be your own cheerleader! Tell yourself, “I’m doing the best I can”, “I always feel better when I have accomplished what I set out to do”, “I know I feel anxious right now, but I’ll be OK.” Etc.
5. Paced breathing helps regulate symptoms of stress. Slow the pace of your breathing down to an average of 6 breaths per minute. Breathe out more slowly than you breathe in, for example; breathe in for five seconds and breathe out for 7 seconds. Work up to practising this exercise 5 minutes each day.
6. Create a dance-music playlist on your phone for use when feeling agitated and overwhelmed with excess energy. Then try out your moves!
7. Activities that occupy both mind and body are helpful as these require concentration, thus giving the mind a rest from worrying thoughts that prolong physical stress symptoms. There are many possibilities: crossword puzzles and sudoku, jigsaw puzzles, creative needlework, using a colouring book, drawing or painting, gardening, even doing the cleaning!