Is your anxiety heightened at the thought of re-entering functioning society alongside Covid? Are you feeling weighed down by your thoughts and worries for the future?
I’m here to tell you that you are not alone in these feelings. Now that government guidelines are lifted and the worst is seemingly behind us, (fingers crossed), where does this leave us? The return to normalcy has been a rocky one, and despite everything being open for business, there is anxiety in the air as we find our feet in adjusting to life alongside Covid. Stepping out of the house has become a surreal experience; masks are no longer compulsory and social distancing is nowhere to be seen. The pandemic appears to be a whisper in the wind, and looking around it’s hard to believe it happened at times.
People are desperate for things to go back to normal, however it’s important we also acknowledge that our attitudes and the way we function as a society has changed. The effects of the pandemic are very much real, and we’ve seen a decline not just in our physical health, but our mental health too. A study involving young people aged 13-24 showed a significant spike in anxiety, as well as an increased concern for family members. Other statistics show anxiety levels rose by 19% in couples and civil partnerships between 2019 and 2020. No matter what age group, everyone has been affected by this pandemic. We understand how hard it can be adjusting to regular life, and as Covid is not going away anytime soon, we’ve compiled a few tips on how to help manage your anxiety.
Go outside and smell the roses
I know, how cliché of me to say that grounding yourself with nature can relieve you of anxiety. Don’t just take my word for it though; let’s have a look at some studies, starting with Robert Ulrich. His study consisted of a group of patients that underwent gallbladder surgery. During their recovery in hospital the group was split into two; one group had a view of trees whilst the other had a view of a wall. The findings showed the patients with the view of the trees tolerated pain better and spent less time in hospital than the other group. Another study by Mind has also revealed that 95% of interviewees said their mood changed from anxious and stressed to calm and balanced after spending time outside.
Ecotherapy has also been introduced as a form of outdoor therapy for vulnerable groups in order to reignite their sense of purpose and give them a better quality of life. It’s centred around physical activity based in nature, whether that be working on farms, woodland, or gardening. Various testimonials have highlighted how the program lifted participants out of their depression and gave them hope.
On the Mind website one testimonial states “I have depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder (BPD). Doing ecotherapy has allowed me somewhere that is my safe space, a place of my own, where I can be quiet and peaceful. The act of growing and caring for something else helps keep me to stop thinking about what is going on in my head.”
Nature has healing qualities; however, it can be difficult to remember this, especially as the anxiety remains from when people were encouraged stay indoors unless necessary. It is important to remind yourself to get out of the house as it’s imperative for your mental wellbeing. Whether it be a bike ride in a country lane, gardening, or a quick walk around the block, don’t underestimate the power of nature to relieve your anxiety. Sometimes stepping away from a stressful environment and having a change of scenery is what you need to feel refreshed.
Socialising in a mindful way
With Covid, seeing friends and doing things you once enjoyed has become a mounting task. Whilst previously we had no choice as to whether we could go out, the lifting of restrictions means the burden of responsibility is now on us. Often this choice can put a lot of pressure on us, and the thought of mingling with others can invoke feelings of guilty and anxiety.
Because of this it is easy to feel isolated and alone, which can make our anxiety worse. As social creatures, it’s incredibly important we have social interaction, and whilst Covid has turned this into an anxiety-inducing task, you can still socialise and be safe. If your anxiety is too high to see friends in person, apps such as House Party and Zoom are great for video calls and playing virtual games with one another. If that doesn’t tickle your fancy you can go traditional and pick up the phone or have a meet up in an outdoor place. The key is to reach out and communicate how you feel with your friends in a way that you’re comfortable with.
Journaling for a healthy mind
Journaling has become another cliché over the years, with the word triggering the stereotype of a teen girl writing about her latest crush after school. Whilst this stereotype deters some people from journaling, it is a method for everyone, and has been highly recommended by various mental health practitioners across the board. This is because it’s a great way to manage stress and practice self-reflection. It’s also a proven way to help manage the condition of your mental health. Writing down your anxieties can break the cycle and help you challenge your thoughts as well as understanding the root of your anxiety.
Baikie and Wilhelm (2015) found that expressive writing about traumatic or stressful events led to a better psychical and psychological outcome for participants than those who wrote about neutral topics. Journaling has also been found to help change negative perceptions of ourselves into positive ones (Robinson, 2017). Whether it’s a bad or good day, journaling is a great way to write down your thoughts with no judgment as well as giving you a healthy outlet for your anxiety.
Practice breathing exercises.
Often times when we feel anxious it can sometimes spiral into a panic. However, changing something as simple as our breathing can help ground us. Anxiety can lead to us breathing in sharp, shallow breaths (thoracic breathing) which may raise Co2 levels in our body, causing dizziness, an increased heart rate and muscle tension. To combat this there’s a few breathing techniques to try:
Belly breathing – Placing one hand on your stomach and the other on your upper chest, allow your stomach to relax. Breathe in through your nose and feel your stomach expand with your breath. Belly breathing for 20 – 30 minutes a day has been found by the American Institute of Stress to reduce anxiety and stress.
Box breathing – Inhale to a count of 4, hold your breath for 4 seconds and exhale for 4 seconds, rinse and repeat.
Alternate nose breathing – With this breathing exercise you bring your pointer finger and middle finger into your palm, leaving the rest of your fingers extended. This hand position known as the Vishnu Mudra in Yoga. Holding your right nostril with your thumb, inhale. Hold your left nostril with your thumb and exhale. Keep repeating this process.
Quieting process breathing – Imagine there are holes in the soles of your feet. When inhaling, visualise the air coming through your feet, filling up your stomach and settling in your lungs. When breathing out feel the air leaving your stomach and back through the soles of your feet.
Practicing productivity – with a twist
During this pandemic we’ve found ourselves with more time on our hands than we know what to do with. Spending so much of our free time inside can make us feel unproductive and demotivated, heightening our anxiety. One method of alleviating this could be spending our time more productively. Now, firstly let’s deconstruct what it means to be ‘productive’. When someone says the word productivity it’s been ingrained in us to think corporate productivity; what can I do to make myself more marketable and useful to society? However, Covid has made us re-evaluate what the term truly means. Previously, working life would take up most of our time, but with working from home being the new norm, attitudes towards the work/life balance are changing. This means people are making more time for themselves, and whilst this is a good thing, it can also be a difficult adjustment.
Social media can contribute to this overwhelming feeling, especially as smartphone usage increased by 46% more from before the pandemic. The likes of rise and grind twitter can make you feel guilty for all the things you’re not doing. Seeing other people enjoying new hobbies, going to the gym every day, and hitting milestones can often feed into our anxiety of not doing enough.
Productivity doesn’t mean waking up at the crack of dawn or going for a 5-mile run, it means investing time into yourself and things that make you happy. Whether that be taking up a new skill, spending hours crafting your Island on Animal Crossing, or simply waking up and completing your daily tasks, all of these things are good enough. For me personally, this meant finally investing in Guitar Hero!
Establish a routine
The instability of Covid-19 has brought a disruption to our daily routines. Whilst you may not recognise this as trigger for your anxiety, a lack of routine can lead to uncertainty and purposelessness which can factor into a decline in mental health. Having a routine is important as it regulates not only our lifestyle, but our brains too. Our brains need patterns and habits in order to function on a daily basis. Studies have shown that routine has eased symptoms of bipolar disorder as well as improving our mental health overall. Even if it’s implementing simple things like waking up at the same time, eating at the same time or reading before bed, all these things contribute to a healthy and happy mind. Dr. Solhkhah from the Jersey Shore Medical Centre states “Routines can create a positive level of stress that keeps us focused and may avoid some of the depression that many people may experience as a result of the Covid pandemic, isolation, fear and uncertainty. I recommend creating and maintaining routines that you can follow even in quarantine that will help reduce the mental health impact of what we are experiencing.”
Ok, so now we know that routine can help manage our anxiety. Easier said than done, right?
Whilst it can be difficult to create new habits, adjusting our lifestyles can transform our happiness and mental health. The key is to take things one step at a time. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the formation of good habits and how they can help you overcome negativity and pave the road to success.
Clear states that if we were to make a conscious effort to better ourselves by 1% every single day, within a year we’d be 37 times better than when we began. Reversing this, if we were to get 1% worse each day, then by the end of the year that number would decline to zero. Moral of the story; do not underestimate the power of making small changes!
It can be a struggle forming healthier habits. As humans we desire immediate gratification, however habits take time to form which can demotivate us and cause us to give up. If you find it difficult to create new habits, following the 4 laws of habit formation will help deconstruct the process and allow you to implement more realistic goals.
Often times we create habits unconsciously. This means we may not recognise behaviour cues that lead us to forming our habits. In order to combat this, it is important we become aware of our habits and behaviours. Creating a habit scorecard can help us see what habits we already have and when there is time in our schedule to create new ones without it clashing.
Much like a planted seed, creating habits doesn’t immediately bear us with the fruits of our labour, and this can be a trigger that stops us from reaching our potential. This means we need to find another way to reward ourselves. Temptation bundling can be one method; the end of the new habit can be rewarded with something you enjoy doing - after doing Y (new habit) I’ll do Z (craved habit). Redefining your behaviours and finding gratitude in activities can also make a new habit more attractive.
Whilst it is easy to overpromise ourselves what we can change, the key is to make our actions as effortless as possible. We are more likely to continue behaviour that can fit into our established routine - think the 1% rule! If you want to start yoga, that doesn’t mean putting aside 30 minutes each day. Instead, keep your yoga mat somewhere you will see it. If you have two minutes spare, roll it out and stand on it. Another day you could put on your gym wear and do a stretch. The key is to continue making tiny changes. This way if you find yourself unable to do yoga one day, continuing these small things will allow the habit to flourish.
Last but not least, make the habit satisfying. If you are not enjoying it, you are less likely to continue. If you are struggling with this, use positive reinforcements to keep you motivated.
Managing our anxieties alongside a pandemic is hard, and there is certainly no manual on what to do to ease our worries. What is important is adjusting our lifestyle to include more mindful practices, as this can make a big difference to our mental health. Whilst managing anxiety is not limited to the things in this article, the key is to keep yourself grounded, invest time into yourself, and remember, take things one step at a time.