Health Matters: Reducing Anxiety
All of us are adjusting to a new normal in the wake of COVID-19, trying to balance personal and professional responsibilities while wondering how this ever-changing situation will evolve and eventually resolve. For those with anxiety, this is especially difficult.
People with clinical anxiety are often bright, capable problem-solvers who focus their intellect, their thinking brain, on problems to avoid the fear, dread, and/or terror that plague them. In a situation like we have now with COVID-19, trying to think through all of the possible scenarios to avoid negative outcomes is about as useful as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We simply cannot know how things will turn out. The best course of action is to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and the most vulnerable among us by heeding the recommendations of public health experts. Incessantly reading the news and perseverating about “what ifs” won’t help.
Now is a time to give our thinking brains a rest and engage in activities that calm and soothe us: listen to music, have a cup of tea, do yoga, meditate. People with anxiety who have worked with a therapist are likely to be familiar with self-soothing methods. However, anxiety is woefully under-diagnosed so if you’re feeling anxious, here is a method you can try.
SELF-SOOTHING FOR INSTANT COMFORT
If you find your mind spinning with “what ifs,” stop and find a comfortable chair where you can sit quietly for 20 minutes. Start by closing your eyes and visualizing the top of your head. Consciously relax the muscles there; let the stress and anxiety move down and out of your body. Then repeat this as you move down your body. Focus on your forehead and your eyes; relax them and again let the stress move down and away. Then your throat, spend a moment enjoying the feeling of taking breath in and releasing it as you feel the stress moving down, down, down. Focus on your chest. Breathe deeply. Same with your solar plexus, your abdomen, your legs, knees, calves, ankles, feet. Keep breathing deeply. Let the stress, tension, worry and doubt flow down and away, out of your body and into the ground.
An exercise like this may not alleviate all stress, but it usually reduces it to a manageable level. Other ways to manage stress include the following.
HEALTHY STRESS-REDUCING HABITS
- Get news from reputable media outlets, not social media. Now is a time when fear mongering is especially dangerous. Rather than scrolling through social media posts, if you’re looking for news, go to a reliable news source, read the day’s articles, and then go do something else.
- Limit screen time. It is important to stay informed, but not to constantly immerse yourself in the stress of the 24-hour news cycle. Also, science has shown that regular exposure to the blue light emitted from screens increases agitation and depression, which among other things, makes it harder to get good sleep. Now more than ever, we all need good sleep to bolster our physical and emotional health.
- Stay connected with friends and family. Although we should all practice social distancing, that doesn’t mean we should disconnect from people we love and who love us. When we are scared and alone, we feel isolated. This isn’t healthy for social creatures like humans. Call and video chat with one another.
- Exercise. The natural endorphins from exercise lift our moods and help us gain a more balanced perspective. Instead of reaching for your smart-phone, tablet or, computer, get up and go for a walk.
- Seek professional help if you need it. If you’re wondering whether you would benefit from talking to a therapist, the answer is probably yes. Talking to a therapist can help you sort out your feelings and provide you with tools to manage anxiety, depression, and other conditions, so you can enjoy your life more. You might also consider talking to your spiritual advisor, your pastor or rabbi.
If you’re worried about affording care, call a Federally Qualified Health Center like MCHC Health Centers and work with our financial services folks. FQHCs have patient advocates who can help you figure out whether you qualify for public health insurance or other financial support.
Eric Emery, Ph.D., LCSW, is a primary care counselor at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.