How are you doing during this time of great disruption and uncertainty? The current coronavirus crisis has forced us to rise to a challenge, the like of which many of us have never encountered before, and naturally we’re finding it hard to live with the constantly changing scenario affecting not just our own health but the health of vulnerable loved ones. The changes in how we socially interact with one another, financial implications for those who now find themselves unable to work, and the disruption to so many aspects of daily life make it unsurprising that many of us feel overwhelmed and afraid.
Your feelings Matter
As a counsellor, I’m no stranger to anxiety which walks into my room on a regular basis, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what’s helpful for those of us who are now finding it even harder to cope. First, I want to say – you are not alone. You might feel that your feelings don’t matter and that others are in a worse position, because we’re hearing so much about our NHS being overwhelmed by the physically unwell, but truth is your feelings matter very much. You don’t need to feel as though you should just ‘man up’ – don’t you hate that expression? Your anxiety is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. So maybe this is the one time when it might be okay to say, ‘It’s not me – it’s the rest of the world!’ It’s true, these are very difficult times, but we are resourceful beings and it’s possible to take better care of ourselves whether we are currently in therapy or not. This is a time for greater compassion – not just for others, but for ourselves. Many of us are very good at being kind and putting others first, but how kind are you being towards yourself? What kind of inner language do you use towards yourself? Is your inner voice a kind one or do you have a tendency to speak to yourself in a harsh or critical way?
What's feeding you?
Another important thing to consider is what you're putting into your system in terms of emotional nourishment. Are you living on a mental, junk food diet of continuous news updates, a never-ending stream of social media opinions, daily chat and gossip about the current state of affairs? If that’s the case, how is that making you feel? How would it be to create a little more head space that feels as though it belongs to you rather than the general public?
Feeling as though we need to be constantly tuned into what’s going on out there can become a bit of an addiction, and addictions of all kinds leave us feeling less in control and more out of touch with our true selves. So, to begin with, how about limiting your intake? Of course we all need to know about important changes we should be making – the situation is constantly evolving, but how about just checking in once a day for 10 minutes or so and sticking to a reliable source of news such as the BBC, or the Guardian for example, who have high ethical standards about what and how they report? Stay away from the YouTube conspiracy theorists who are fanning the flames of fear. Consider whether you need to be reading and responding to the sometimes well meant, but often attention seeking social media posts that so often flare up into heated debates. If certain Facebook, Instagram or Twitter contacts are making you feel annoyed, anxious or depressed with the kind of things they are posting, then have a break for a little while – perhaps unfollow certain people. Take better control over what’s ‘feeding’ you.
Regaining some control
Another simple thing that can help with anxious thoughts and a tendency to catastrophise, is to sit down with a sheet of paper, and side by side, write two headings: On one side you could write; In My Control and on the other side write Out of My Control. Think for a moment about your worst fears, which might be thoughts about losing your job, you or someone you love becoming very sick or even dying, running out of food and other supplies, being unable to cope with not seeing friends. Notice what happens to you when you think those thoughts. Do you feel better or worse? Pretty obviously those thoughts are not very helpful and they are also aspects which for the most part we can’t control. So, write those things under the Out of My Control side.
Now think about some of the things which are in your control – things like hand washing, taking care of your body in other ways such as limiting your alcohol intake, eating as healthily as possible, finding interesting ways to do some exercise, having regular contact with friends and family by phone or video chat, choosing uplifting reading and film sources, doing something small but kind for someone you love, maybe learning meditation or yoga via an online class? Put those on the In My Control side and see if you can make that list longer than the other side. Then begin to notice when your mind is straying onto the dark side, and make a conscious choice to redirect your thoughts onto something that feels more in your control and brings you back into the here and now. Could you drop what is a future based thought about what might never happen – and focus on what IS actually happening in the present moment?
Developing the ability to bring ourselves back into presence can be a very helpful way of alleviating anxiety. It also takes practice, because we are learning to redirect habitually negative thoughts. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or next week, but we do have some choices about how we live today, or even just the next couple of hours. What could you do right now, that helps bring a little more calm into this moment?