On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. With it, lifestyles changed across the planet. Canadians are only just coming to terms with this “microscopic non-living entity” as not just a health threat, but also an economic adversary. The government has limited social gatherings which we could have otherwise used to “let off steam”. Some of us are awaiting test results, falling ill or become caregivers to sick family members. Others are facing layoffs or transitioning to video conference meetings from home, with children running wild in the background. Festering family feuds may erupt more easily between partners cooped up in close quarters for weeks on end. The hardest part for much of this is that nobody knows how long this state of emergency will last.
As psychotherapists, we see you and we get it. It is not easy to adapt and cope with sudden and dramatic lifestyle and routine changes. It is totally normal to feel a full spectrum of emotions, from anxiety, grief, overwhelmed reactions and even trauma. Every human in the world is in this with you and feeling the impact, one way or another. This blog will help you understand these emotions better, and we have outlined strategies that we hope you will find helpful for coping with anxiety over the next few weeks.
The Problem with Anxiety
Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress. It manifests itself in most people with a rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing rhythm. In the short term, this response increases the flow of blood to your brain so you can focus. It allows you to prepare an effective response to the presenting stressor. A mild anxiety response feels like butterflies in your stomach, similar to what you would experience on the first day of a new job.
Sustained and chronic anxiety, on the other hand, can become a problem. When this happens, you might experience unpleasant physical symptoms, like nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, dry mouth and chills. An extreme response can leave you disoriented, fearful, distressed and shaking uncontrollably. The onset of an anxiety attack can build up over time and suddenly leave you feeling helpless. A PTSD flashback is an example of what can occur when trauma is left unchecked and the ensuing anxiety symptoms fester over time. Social anxiety can lead to avoidance of social situations, with the ability to severely impact lifestyles and livelihoods.
Anxiety affects people in a variety of ways and it is the leading cause of mental health disorders in North America. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a valid stressor to our doorstep and some anxiety symptoms are normal for what is underway. However, so much remains unknown about its trajectory and duration. It is time for everyone to perform a mental health check-in if only to ensure your anxiety response remains manageable if this turns into a marathon and not the short sprint we want it to be.
Coping With Anxiety: Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a practice that trains you to remain focused on the present moment and use awareness to manage your thoughts openly and without judgement. With it, you deploy all of your five senses to your present experience. Most people start their mindfulness training with breathing. You take a deep breath and follow its effect on your senses of taste, smell, sight, touch and hearing. With this, you literally offer your mind and body the ability to fully experience the physical sensation of breathing.
Practising mindfulness gradually with other behaviour, like eating a piece of chocolate, for example, will help you improve your skills. Over time, you will become intimately familiar with all your sensory responses, and recognize hyper-sensations when they occur. Mindfulness will help you accept or diffuse them, so you can calm down and ground yourself. This is a proven method for coping with anxiety. Consequently, therapists often prescribe it as a first-line treatment option.
Initially, those new to mindfulness practice may experience trouble with maintaining focus. And surprisingly, learning the skill is similar to physical bodybuilding. Engaging the services of a trained therapist for a few sessions can help you hone the techniques in a disciplined fashion so you benefit from it in the long run.
Focusing On What’s Manageable
Much of the anxiety around Covid-19 is occurring because of our loss of agency. The rate of viral transmission depends entirely on how we behave as a group over the next few weeks. We’re in the early days of the pandemic in Canada, and the government has instilled “soft” controls that require voluntary action from people to behave in a manner that can protect the herd.
March break travellers have returned to Canada with orders to self-isolate. As individuals, we have no control over people who may choose to behave irresponsibly. And therein lays the problem. The only outlet for our expressions of frustration is social media and we invariably end up fuelling dumpster fires here. Psychologists point to the toilet paper shortage as an example of what occurs when herd mentality turns irrational. It causes an emergency to get worse.
If you are starting to feel stressed out because you believe the pandemic is out of control, then you can implement strategies for coping with anxiety by switching your attention to what you can control. For example, you can wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face and reduce unnecessary contact with others. Consciously directing your thoughts to manageable, bite-sized actions will keep you from getting overwhelmed. It will also prevent your thoughts from spiralling into unhelpful and detrimental behaviour.
CBT & Positive Self-Talk
“Fake it until you make it!” Career coaches will offer this advice to any candidate venturing into a job interview. The point is, it actually works! Psychologists and psychotherapists are fortunate to witness, first-hand, the transformational impact of positive self-talk on millions of clients. We often use evidenced-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and rely on the powerful connections between thoughts, feelings and actions, to help clients manage a variety of mental health challenges, including anxiety.
The COVID-19 pandemic remains fluid and dynamic. Changes in public health policy may cause stress, suddenly. Many of us have had to change our routines and child care arrangements overnight. Some of us have received layoff notices and we are wrapping our heads around how to pay the bills. You might fall ill, have to take care of a sick loved one or endure a few nail-biting days in quarantine before your test results arrive. All these situations pose understandable challenges to our ability to “keep it together” psychologically.
Positive self-talk builds self-confidence and resilience. This feeds the brain’s neural pathways with helpful feelings that culminate in well-adjusted and constructive behaviour. A few sessions with a trained therapist can help you learn these skills for coping with anxiety that will last a lifetime.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is usually structured as an intensive, short-term, problem solving therapeutic treatment, and scientific studies have demonstrated it to be highly effective on individuals suffering from stress, anxiety, depression and much more. We often blend CBT with mindfulness and elements of Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) or Sensorimotor Psychotherapy for a well-rounded intervention that acknowledges and validates emotion.
Communicating With Loved Ones
As social creatures, quarantines, self-isolation and social distancing go against the grain of natural human behaviour. Social isolation on such a grand scale may understandably become a stressor for our brains, which are literally wired for connection. In fact, socializing is a powerful modulator of mood. Our nervous system tends to calm down when we feel seen, supported and cared for by others.
During the COVID-19 emergency, we will need to make virtual forms of communication more important than ever. While workplaces are quickly remodelling to bring online teams together remotely, we tend not to do the same, personally. During the pandemic, making a simple switch from text and telephone to video conferences with our loved ones will help fend off isolation and loneliness. In fact, family members will benefit from actively getting together for virtual dinner and social gatherings during the pandemic, using free tools like Facetime, Messenger and Zoom.
Predisposition to Anxiety
Anxiety often accompanies depression, and while there is no evidence of one disorder causing the other, many people suffer from both. In addition, a segment of our population suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and a pathological fear of germs. The pandemic underway could make these conditions worse. Contact your physician or psychotherapist as soon as possible if you experience this, so they can adjust your treatment or medication.
Coping with Anxiety Using Talk Therapy
COVID-19 is unprecedented for our times with the potential to impact every human on the planet. For a while, things will not operate normally as medical professionals and governments grapple with the virus to bring it under control. Humanity has endured pandemics before and overcome them, ultimately. There is no reason to believe we won’t do the same this time.
Safeguarding your physical health should be at the top of your mind, right now. However, don’t ignore your mental, emotional, social and financial stress. With so much out of your control, you may feel overwhelmed. Reaching out for professional help is a proactive way to protect your mental health. Psychotherapy is a form of treatment for your feelings. It involves talking to a professional who is trained to understand how emotions and thought patterns affect an individual’s overall health. This “talk therapy” brings stress relief, in and of itself.
Beaches Therapy Group is set up to offer online video conferencing sessions with trained therapists to last the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. We can help you instill supportive and productive thoughts, behaviour, habits and attitudes to shore up your coping mechanisms so you can effectively deal with anxiety over the next few weeks. We are here for you and we will get through this together.
Contact us for a complimentary phone assessment.
About The Authors
Rebecca Loucks MSW, RSW is a Registered Social Worker and managing director at Beaches Therapy Group, serving clients for over 10 years. We have helped hundreds of individuals manage their anxiety symptoms through a blend of psychotherapy treatments. Let’s have a discussion about how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.
Isabella Bergagnini is an intern at Beaches Therapy Group with a B.A. in Psychology. She is looking forward to graduating in August 2020 from the Master’s Level of Psychology Program at Adler Graduate School (M.Psy Candidate). Her internship hours contribute towards her goal to register with the College of Psychologists.