What a weird time.
With UK infection rates of coronavirus increasing by the day, and new and more severe government guidelines being put in place to keep us safe, the impact of the pandemic is beginning to be felt by us all. In addition to (completely natural and normal) fears and uncertainty over the physical effects of the virus, the constant stream of information and warnings combined with uncertainty about the future can easily create higher levels of stress and anxiety – again, completely natural and normal.
Being told to stay inside and isolate, stockpile food, and wash your hands frequently are anxiety-inducing enough on their own, however for those with pre-existing mental health conditions such as eating disorders, panic disorders, or OCD, this very sensible advice is laden with triggering memories and associations.
In sum, this stuff is not easy on the brain, which has an ancient tendency to steer us towards negative emotions such as fear and anxiety, switching on our stress response via our nervous system in order to make sure we stay presciently aware of any possible danger. Once a very useful technique (think – assuming a moving stripey thing in a forest is always a tiger) in this modern world with its myriad of more complicated, stressful demands and fears, our brain is a little like an old computer in need of an update. FYI, don’t blame your brain, it’s just trying to keep you safe.
In lieu of hundreds/thousands of years of mental adaptation, I offer up 5 easy tools to help you interrupt your stress response and help reduce the harmful effects COVID-19 is having on your mental health and wellbeing. They take practice, and like anything they don’t always work 100% of the time, but my hope is at least one can help you.
1. Deep Belly Breathing
So simple, and yet so effective. If there was one thing I could teach for the rest of my life, this would be it. It bolsters the immune system, calms the nervous system/stress response and is good for any unconscious tension being held in the body. It can be used anytime you begin to feel anxious/panicked/overwhelmed, but is also brilliant for insomnia. With a relaxed belly, place your hands on your lower abdomen, and take full, deep breaths into this area, encouraging the breath away from the chest and upper lungs. Imagine there is a balloon in your belly – expanding on the in-breath and deflating on the out-breath. Repeat for as long as needed, as often as needed. (It’s easiest done lying down).
2. Don’t ‘Catastrophise’
Yes, this is a scary situation for us all. However constantly imagining the worst case scenario ignites your stress response and leaves you in an even greater state of fear and anxiety. Furthermore, stress compromises your immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to illness. Each time you find your thoughts drifting to the worst case scenario, ask yourself: “Is this thought helpful to me right now? Or is it just making me feel more panicked?” If the answers are no and yes respectively, tell your brain “shut the f*ck up”, and quickly find something else to distract it – listen to a podcast or put on a piece of your favourite (upbeat) music and dance your heart out.
3. Practice Social Action
While our desire to pick up a few more rolls of toilet paper is reasonable, clearing the local shelves of all essential goods is endangering those who rely on shops (such as the elderly, who are also significantly more at risk of the virus than any other group). Stop stockpiling what you don’t really need, and instead pick up supplies for a local food bank (which are struggling enormously), or drop some bits round to your elderly neighbours. I can’t remember (and nor can google) who said that enlightened self-interest is the driving force of man, but they were right – take this opportunity to do something good. Trust me, you’ll feel instantly better.
4. Slow Down.
I know that with Spring approaching and the weather warming up, the last thing we want is to be forced back into hibernation. However the best way to protect your mental health is by taking this unique set of circumstances and seeing them as an opportunity to step back and reevaluate what’s important in your life. If you view this crisis as an opportunity for reflection, rather than simply cause to panic, you’ll instantly feel less anxious and stressed. Marie Kondo your room, finally start working on that short story, find a new Youtube yoga or exercise video to do every morning. I also have a guided meditation if that appeals 😉
5. Compassion meditation
There isn’t a better time to focus on our common humanity, and this exercise is perfect for when you’re feeling alone and/or exasperated by others. Find a comfortable position and close the eyes/lower the gaze. Relax all your muscles, especially those in the neck and jaw, and imagine the area around your heart being filled with warmth and compassion. Let it permeate your entire body and then mentally repeat the following x 3: “May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be free from suffering”. Continue to imagine that warmth and compassion and bring to mind the people in your life – family, friends, co-workers, strangers – and understand that just like you they have challenges, make mistakes, experience frustration, jealousy, pain, & fear. Mentally repeat to yourself x 3: “May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free from suffering”. Spend as long here as feels right for you, then smile widely (fake it till you make it!) and continue with your day.
To make sure you actually do these things, set silent alarms on your phone to remind you to stop to refer to these or other helpful tools throughout the day – listen to a song, meditate, have a stretch, call a loved one, go for a walk, or anything else that fills you with joy and keeps you sane.
With love and stay well,
ps. Limit your social media time – we all know it exacerbates loneliness and anxiety. I delete Instagram from my phone now and again, and if that’s also a problem app for you, I recommend doing it too – trust me, the effort of having to re-download it puts me off 90% of the time.