Anxiety and the Covid-19 pandemic

Understandably, people are experiencing an increase in anxiety for various different reasons amid the current situation with Covid-19. These range from concerns about contracting the virus, particularly for those with underlying conditions, through to coping with being confined at home, which might in itself be difficult for some people and this could be for many different reasons. Beyond this, there are other significant pressures surrounding money, employment and education that might be affecting an individual’s level of stress and overall wellbeing. If you are self-employed or run an independent business, anxieties are sure to be growing in parallel with the gravity of the situation.

With these anxieties and the internal shifts that people are experiencing, finding ways to maintain a sense of equilibrium is increasingly difficult. Home circumstances can exacerbate the ability to take space and tensions can start to rise, or in contrast, others are faced with loneliness and isolation from connecting with people. The question then is how to lessen these potentially overwhelming feelings and find ways to support ourselves and others.

One of the most effective techniques in working with anxiety is to bring the attention to the ‘here and now’. Anxiety tends to be oriented toward the future – things that might happen or we fear will happen. The most effective way to lessen the effect of anxiety then is to bring the attention and focus back to the present moment. There are lots of exercises you can do to help draw you to the present, such as breathing deeply and counting the breath (inhale for 4-6 counts, exhale for 6-8). Elongating the exhalation is particularly important for calming the nervous system. Another is to walk mindfully around your living room, paying careful attention to each step, the sensation of your foot as it makes contact with the floor, what the floor feels like, the rhythm of your steps, the muscles in your calves as they contract and release and so on. I really like the 5-4-3-2-1 method which uses your senses – list 5 things you can hear, four things you can see, three things you can touch, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste or say one good thing about yourself.

It might be helpful to set some limits around news consumption for instance, and only check the news once per day for the headlines or important updates as a way to keep informed. If you find yourself compulsively checking or watching the news, this might serve to increase your sense of anxiety. It’s also incredibly important to try to maintain connections with loved ones and those who are sources of support. Reaching out and sharing difficult feelings with those you trust can be hugely uplifting and alleviating. But even having a coffee break with a colleague or friend via video chat will be beneficial.

Maintaining some kind of ‘normal’ routine each day can also be helpful as people function better when they feel they have some kind of structure in place. It also increases a sense of control during a time when things are feeling uncertain and maybe even out of control on some level. Be mindful though that it is nonetheless important to pay attention to feelings of fear and anxiety – they are important communications from within signalling to you that there is something going on that needs your attention. In this sense, I feel perhaps the most important thing any of us can do for ourselves and those we are close to at this time, is to seek to cultivate a stance of compassion and acceptance that this IS difficult and that your feelings are real and valid.

I believe the latter is crucial amid the prevailing stream on social media that it is selfish to complain about being confined or to experience difficult feelings when there are those risking their lives in certain fields. While we are of course eternally grateful for those who are keeping our fundamental and life saving services running, we must not lose sight of and squash the need to attend to those feelings that we fear might be unacceptable and the fact that they need to be given voice to as well.

Finally, we do not know what any one person’s individual circumstances or life experience has been and therefore, a situation such as this can evoke all sorts of complex feelings and behaviours. Our deeply embedded survival systems inevitably activate when there is a threat present, and we are dealing with a threat that we cannot see and so it is difficult to protect ourselves.

If you feel that speaking to a professional therapist might be helpful, many therapists, including myself, are now offering therapy online, and there is information about some of the other English-speaking support services in France on my links page here.

If you have any comments about what I’ve said or suggestions for other topics that you would like covered here, please drop me an email at sarah@headspace-therapy.com.