We certainly are facing uncertainty in this day and age. At the time of this posting, in Minnesota, most places are shut down, most businesses have employees working from home (if they are lucky enough to still have a job), many daycare locations are closed, and schools are shut down for at least two weeks.
My husband works for a local co-op and has been asked to help on the floor with stocking, helping customers, bag groceries, etc. While I’m thankful for the job security, I’m constantly worried about him coming in contact with someone who has the virus, if he hasn’t already.
To say my anxiety has been high is an understatement. Like many of you, I’m just trying to get my bearings and figure out what our new ‘normal’ is. And that is scary. The unknown is scary.
But there are things you can do to help yourself and manage your anxiety, so that you can focus on taking care of yourself and others.
I’m not a doctor or mental health professional. Just a girl with high generalized anxiety disorder with an OCD component, who has been in therapy for many years and who has tried a lot of things to learn how to manage anxiety.
So please go into this knowing that this isn’t medical advice (although I’ve included research where I can), they are tips that I do and will keep doing for my own mental health.
If you have any concerns, please reach out to a medical professional. There are resources at the end of this post. If you need immediate help, you can reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting ‘home’ to 741-741 (for the US.)
So, without further ado, here are 14 ways to manage anxiety of the unknown.
This is a hard one. I get it. Things have been happening with the spread of the virus so fast that it’s hard to keep up. In fact, just last week I was out having lunch with my co-worker at a restaurant. Today, restaurants are closed, I’m required to work remotely (being thankful I still have a job), and if HAVE to come into contact, we are requested to be six feet apart.
But, I’ve found that the quicker I accept reality, the easier it is to process everything going on. Fighting it only leads to denial and a longer processing time.
Please know that accepting it doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to grieve, or be angry, or scared. It just means you acknowledge your feelings around what’s going on. And you feel and process those feelings, instead of fighting them or hiding them. So if you need time to process and grieve, give that to yourself. Don’t feel like you have to DO things just because others are doing them. Take time to rest and do nothing.
It may take you some time to get here, and that’s OK too. Just make sure that at some point, you do.
Action item: If you’re struggling with ruminating thoughts (hi, me), give yourself a certain amount of time a day to worry. Set a timer, and get all the worries out. Write them down, say them out loud, do whatever you need to do. If you find yourself excessively worrying at any other time, remind yourself you’ll have time for that later (or tomorrow.)
Know that a thought is just a thought
This was one of the biggest lessons I learned through therapy, and one that I’m so thankful I did.
Our brain has lots of jobs, and one of those jobs is to think. Just like our other organs operate how they are supposed to without question. But when a thought comes up, we don’t have to do anything with it. We can if we want, but if we don’t, we can let it go.
I started learning how to do this by trying to catch myself whenever I could with a thought. I would imagine myself, and then imagine a box. And in that box was the thought. I imagined the scene from Harry Potter when the kids are learning ‘Riddikulus’, the boggart repelling charm. If you’re not familiar with Harry Potter, a boggart (a being that takes the shape of your worst fear) was in a closet, and the students had to practice the charm.
Anyway, I imagine opening the box with the thought, and like in Harry Potter, I have to decide what to do with it.
If I want to assign an emotion to it, I can. If I want it to float away (I imagine it floating up like a bubble), I can imagine that too.
The biggest piece is practicing so you start to learn to observe your thoughts before you act on them.
Action item: Practice, practice, practice. And listen to episode one of the podcast ‘Invisibilia’ from NPR on thoughts.
Of course I had to include a tip about meditating. A quick Ecosia search will provide any data you could possibly want on the benefits of meditating. But here’s the gist: it helps calm the fight or flight system in our brains. And during times of uncertainty, our fight or flight system can be highly reactive. That being said, you need to be realistic about meditating. One meditation practice may help you feel a little more calm, but it’s not going to make your mood do a 180. But, it can be an important tool in your box.
One of my favorite meditation apps is Insight Timer. It’s free, and there are TONS of different meditation styles, lengths, and teachers on the app so you can try different ones to see which resonate with you the most. There are also meditation and sleep stories for kids.
Action item: Download the Insight Timer app, or find a meditation on YouTube and make a plan to start meditating a couple times a week. If you are feeling up to it, of course, do more! But start small if you’re new.
Phone Lock App
I have personally found that during this time of uncertainty (or times of uncertainty in general), I tend to spend LOTS of time online. Which, as you may have experienced, don’t always make me feel the best. I find myself slipping into comparison mode, my anxiety triggered by news articles and stats, and just overall time sucking.
One thing that has really helped me is to download a phone lock app. My absolute favorite one is called ‘Forest App’. The Forest App lets you set an amount of time you want to be away from your phone. During that time frame, a tree grows. However, if you go into another app, your tree will die.
Each time you successfully grow a tree, you get coins. If you upgrade to the ‘premier’ version of the app for $2, you can eventually redeem those coins to plant a tree through the app’s forest partner (in real life.) So not only do you not want to kill your tree, you also are motivated to use the app to get more coins!
Additionally, for the premier version, you have the ability to white list certain apps. So for example, I have messages, Insight Timer, and my podcast app white listed so that I can still use them if needed while growing my tree.
Action item: Download the Forest App or a similar app, and start mindfully spending time away from your phone and social media.
A deep breath is a great tool to help calm your body’s physiological response to stress and anxiety, and introduce mindfulness. How? Research shows that a deep breath can help lower your heart rate, relax your muscles, and lower your blood pressure.
Taking a breath is also a good way to focus your thoughts away from anxious or stressful things (the past or the future) and into the present.
I created this graphic of the 20-second box breath specifically for COVID-19 times because it could be done while washing your hands for the recommended amount of time. However, you can do this any time. You can also change the amount of time for each inhale, exhale, and pause to a duration that works for you (3 seconds, 4 seconds, etc.)
The box breath can be done anywhere and at any time which is just one of the things I love about it.
Action item: Write down the box breath and put it in your purse, nightstand, desk – anywhere you may need a stress-relieving break.
Times of uncertainty make it hard for our brains to stay focused and present (at least for me.) Without concrete information, the brain likes to make up stories to fill in those unknowns. Unfortunately, those unknowns are usually not helpful or realistic.
If I find I’m ruminating on lots of thoughts that I know aren’t realistic or helpful, I’ll create a ‘t-chart’. The left side is a brain dump of all the worries and anxieties I’m currently experiencing (side note: sometimes the action of a brain dump can be helpful in these situations. Our brains think faster than we can write, so just the act of actually writing stuff down can be calming.)
The right side is where you can write down what you actually know about each worry or stressor. If you feel inclined, you can actually look up facts and statistics about each worry if it will help. However, in some cases, like with COVID-19 stuff, researching MORE information may actually not help, so tune in with how you’re feeling and what you think may help.
Action item: grab a notebook or piece of scratch paper and do a brain dump of all the things you’re worried about. If you feel up for it, go through on the right side and write down what you factually know about each worry. Feel free to look up actual statistics if you think it will help.
Help others in need
Paying it forward, random acts of kindness, helping others – whatever you want to call it – the end result is still the same. You’re thinking of others. Which means you’re not focusing on negative thoughts.
What’s more, research shows that giving back to others gives your mind a sense of control, something it is often lacking during times of uncertainty. It also gives you a purpose, which, when you’re stuck at home unable to go anywhere or do anything, is something many of us can use.
Action item: Do something nice for someone else! There are so many amazing ideas out there right now – check on a neighbor, offer to pick up groceries for an elderly friend, make art and send to someone, start a free little pantry or free little seed library, donate to a food pantry…the possibilities are endless.
Have compassion for yourself and others
We are all going through trying times. Everyone reacts differently. Many people are scared and don’t know how to channel that energy. Others may be at their wits end with anxiety and stress and react with judgment and harshly.
While what is going on doesn’t excuse anyone’s behavior, what we can do is have compassion for others when things do come up that we react to. Something that I’ve started doing is when someone does something that sets me off, I try to remember the mantra:
“They’re human, just like me.”
Or, “just like me” for short.
It truly takes the edge off of anything that has come up that someone else has done, or if I’m feeling particularly critical of myself.
One thing that’s helped is to write this mantra down so that I can see it regularly which helps me practice for when I really need it. I really like this mantra because it not only reminds us that other people are human, it reminds us that we are human, and to be kind to ourselves.
Action item: Write down this mantra somewhere you can see it regularly, and use it as needed for others and yourself.
Mindfulness grounding exercise
This exercise is one of my all time favorites, because it can be done anytime, anywhere, and doesn’t involve deep breathing. It’s not that I have anything against deep breathing, but sometimes if I’m really worked up, it can be hard to get to a point where I’m able to pause and breathe. Plus, it’s easy to remember – a bonus for those extra challenging times.
It works because anxiety and stress live in the past or the present. But this activity forces your mind to focus on the present – what is literally around you at a specific moment in time. And while you’re focusing on each one of these grounding pieces, you can’t think of anything else.
Action item: Next time you’re feeling anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, walk through each of these grounding tips, and feel yourself relax. By the time you get through one or two of these, you’ll be at a point where you can start deep breathing or doing another mindfulness activity.
Focus on what you can control
The lack of control is a huge piece of anxiety during uncertain times. Truly. I recently read an article with a psychologist that said this could be one piece of why people are stockpiling toilet paper – because it is something they can control. Not saying it’s right, just reporting what I read. This is the piece I struggle with the most (the lack of the perception of control via the mind, not the stockpiling toilet paper.) But honestly, there isn’t much you can do about that. However, you can change your focus on things you actually can control, instead of ruminating on things you can’t and the things that could go wrong.
Let’s look at the example of COVID-19. This is an incredibly scary time, and there are lots of unknowns, and lots of things we can’t control. Many of us are suddenly work from home parents, who are also having to now focus on trying to help our kids do digital learning. Or, we’re having to work from home with young kids and keep them entertained at the same time. Or, we’re stressed out because we lost our job and don’t know how we’re going to pay our bills.
Yeah, there is so much unknown, so much we can’t control, so much, so much.
But here is what we can control, and what I’ve been trying to focus on:
- Wash your hands regularly
- Stick with your routine as much as you can
- Stay home if you’re sick
- Make yummy foods for you and/or your family
- Get outside
- Move your body in a way that feels good
- Resting, relaxing
- Reading or enjoying another hobby
- Contacting loved ones and friends
- Helping others (see tip above)
Action item: Make a list of all the things that are in your control right now. Throw it up on your bathroom mirror, on your nightstand, or somewhere else where you can see it regularly. Add to the list as necessary. Remind yourself regularly that yes, things are scary and unknown, but there are things you can control and focus on.
Related post: 7 Ways to Detox from Social Media
Mindful cooking and eating
Many of us are doing more cooking and eating at home (I realize this is a privilege thing and may not apply to everyone, but this tip CAN apply to everyone.) Cooking and eating is a great time to integrate some mindfulness into your life.
When you’re cooking, focus on the ingredients. What colors do you see? What are the textures? What do you smell? What sounds are made while you’re prepping your food?
Do you notice similar components to this and the grounding exercise I talked about above? See why I like it so much? It’s applicable in so many areas!
For eating, you’ll be focusing on similar things.
What does your food taste like? What textures do you notice? What does the food smell like? What is the temperature? How slowly can you chew?
Action item: The next time you’re cooking and/or eating, focus specifically on the food. Pay attention to if you feel calmer, or if you notice you enjoy the time more.
Stay connected (virtually) with others
Obviously, during COVID-19 times, we aren’t able to physically connect with others. But we certainly can virtually connect with others. I personally have been calling someone in my family almost every day (or at least for sure talking via text or Facebook messenger daily.) I’ve been having virtual happy hours (which have been super fun), and also connecting with groups I’m in via zoom. In a way, it’s been fun to find creative ways to virtually hang out with those who mean the most to me.
I’ve also seen my neighbors more the past two weeks than I have in six months (to be fair, it was winter.) It’s been really reassuring to see them, check in with them verbally, and make sure everything is OK.
Connecting with others can be a great distraction and a great break from our own internal dialogue. It’s hard to get stuck ruminating when you’re focusing on others and their own wellbeing.
Action item: Set up a virtual happy hour with co-workers, friends, or even family dinners! Say hi to your neighbors and ask them if they need anything.
Limit news/media consumption
There is such a thing as remaining informed, and another to over-indulge, which can cause lots of anxiety and stress. I won’t go into all the research behind too much news consumption, because I have an entire post linked below on it.
Some things I do is only follow one news source on Facebook (I don’t follow any besides environmental news sites anywhere else.) I don’t watch the news. I subscribe to ‘TheSkimm’, which is a M-F news source for millennials that’s awesome. It comes in the morning, and recaps the top stories from the previous day around the world. If you want more information on a particular story, they provide lots of external links. It’s free, and you can sign up here.
That’s it. And some days I don’t even read TheSkimm if I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed.
Action item: Unsubscribe from news emails, notifications, social channels, and anywhere else – with the exception of one local and one national/international. Sign up for TheSkimm. Pay attention to how you feel on the days you don’t over consume.
Reach out for help
If you find yourself in need of more help, or your anxiety and stress is to the point where it is affecting your everyday life, reach out for help via one of the resources below. Or, you can Ecosia a local therapist/psychologist.
- National Institute of Mental Health
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Online Resources and Finding Help
- Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741 (US number) to be connected with a trained crisis counselor.
- Finally, this is a great page from ‘Everyday Help’ with a ton of resources for mental health assistance such as financial help for therapy and medications, support groups, etc.
What types of things have you been doing to bring mindfulness into your life?
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