Coping With Stress And Anxiety In Uncertain Times

The Emotional Challenge Of COVID-19

If you’ve felt stressed at some point since March 2020, you certainly haven’t been alone. We’ve all been thrown into unstable, unfamiliar territory. We’ve faced loss of safety and stability, loss of freedom, and loss of connection with friends and loved ones. In such circumstances, it’s very natural for feelings of fear, sadness and overwhelm to arise.

Many people have found these feelings gradually subsiding over time, as they get used to new norms such as mask-wearing, or ever-changing rules and restrictions. There is frustration, boredom or tiredness, but overall they are managing.

For others, however, the stress is proving more persistent. Maybe anxiety and uncertainty continue to dominate your thoughts. Perhaps you or your family have been more directly affected, falling sick or losing income. And as the rest of the world seems to be adjusting and adapting (or denying there’s a problem), you can feel quite alone with it all.

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Are You Buried Under A Pile Of “What-Ifs”?

Anxiety is characterised by constant worrying, churning things over and over in the mind. What if I don’t have a job next month? What if I’m not doing enough to keep my loved ones safe? Will it damage my child if I don’t keep up with home schooling? We often develop a tight ‘knot’ in the stomach, or tension in the body, as thoughts go round and round in the head.

Uncertainty around big, unanswerable questions can leave us feeling especially powerless and unsafe. How many people in the supermarket have the virus without showing symptoms? What is the risk around visiting my elderly parent? Will things ever get back to ‘normal’? When we face uncertainty we may become hyper-vigilant, constantly seeking information, trying to feel more in control.

Fortunately there are tried and tested ways of reducing feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, and combating the underlying stress and overwhelm that fuels them. Just a few simple techniques can transform the way you meet this situation.

Dialling Down Anxiety: Acknowledge, And Breathe

Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling, designed to alert us to the possibility of danger, a bit like a smoke alarm. Our first impulse is to find a way to fight the danger, or flee from it – but neither of those options are possible with a virus. So the most common reaction is to just try pushing anxiety as far away as possible.

The trouble is, when we try to ignore our alarm system it just gets louder. The more we push anxiety away, the more stress-chemicals get released into our bodies. And this in turn can make us even more anxious.

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The solution is to give anxiety something different: acknowledgment and recognition. This calms it down. We can remind ourselves that it’s totally natural for our alarm system to go off when confronting an abnormal situation. And that our adult self can tolerate it, and live with it. Practice putting your hand gently over your stomach and saying to yourself: “Ah yes, I expected you to be here, Anxiety. I know you have my best interests at heart. It’s OK, I can handle you. We’ll get through this together.”

It can also be really helpful to take a couple of minutes when you’re anxious to breathe slowly and deeply. When we’re anxious, our natural breathing is fast and shallow. So by doing the opposite, breathing slowly and deeply, we send powerful signals to the brain that “all is well”. It can have an almost magical calming effect on the mind. Make sure that the out-breath is longer than the in-breath. Many people find that ‘7-11 breathing’ – seven counts in and eleven counts out – is a helpful rhythm.

Dialling Down Uncertainty: Create Routines

Sitting with uncertainty can feel enormously stressful. We can find ourselves yearning for clarity, for control; endlessly searching the internet or checking the news.

However, we actually have a ‘mental muscle’ that enables us to tolerate quite a lot of uncertainty in our daily lives. For example, we generally get into a car and set off calmly on a journey, ignoring the awful possibility of a crash or accident.

We do this by focusing on small actions and routines that we know will be helpful, such as fastening a seat-belt, keeping to speed limits, and getting the car regularly serviced. There is something about doing what we can in small, predictable ways which is inherently calming. It helps us ‘tune out’ the uncertainty of a situation.

COVID-19 - Counselling and Psychotherapy for Adults and Teens, Online Therapy, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth

Applying that same mental muscle to the current situation means creating small, predictable routines for yourself each day. The more we can focus on small helpful actions, the better we can sit with the larger uncertainty. For example:

  • Create a regular structure for your day: Try to keep to consistent times for getting up and going to bed, for eating, and for work/entertainment periods. Schedule just one or two news updates per day, and never just before bedtime.
  • Move your body, daily: Make time for some regular gentle exercise – a walk or jog or bike-ride outside, or some gentle stretching or yoga at home.
  • Reconnect with nature, daily: Spend some time outdoors each day if you can – in a green space, if possible. If not, open a window and listen to the sound of the birds, or feel the touch of the wind or sun on your skin.

Easing Stress And Overwhelm: Choose Kindness…

Any highly stressful situation is made worse if we feel powerless, as we can do with COVID-19. It’s normal to find it hard to concentrate, to become irritable and impatient, or to find ordinary tasks overwhelming. We may tell ourselves: “I shouldn’t be feeling this, I should be more in control, I should be managing all this better”. But this kind of harsh self-talk just increases the stress we’re under.

Fortunately, even when we can’t change our circumstances, we can still choose how we act in response.

COVID-19 - Counselling and Psychotherapy for Adults and Teens, Online Therapy, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth

…Kindess To Yourself…

One of the best ways to ease acute stress is to choose to be kind to yourself. Remind yourself that it’s normal to feel like this, that you’re not alone in your struggles. If you find yourself emotionally overwhelmed, use that as a signal to take a ‘self-kindness break’. Do something that feels comforting or enjoyable, such as reading, cooking, watching a comedy, or making something.

You may need to take self-kindness breaks quite frequently when first facing a stressful situation – and that’s OK. Your resilience will increase as time passes.

…Kindness To Others

In addition, one of the most effective ways to ease long-term, persistent stress is to choose to be kind to others. Studies have shown that those who help others and support their communities are significantly happier and less stressed than those who focus on their own self-interest.

In this situation with restrictions and lockdowns, it may well be that you can’t assist others physically. But you may still be able to reach out to someone with a phonecall, or donate to a food-bank, or smile at a neighbour over a garden gate. Even being consciously kind towards a pet can help you feel steadier and calmer. Set your intention to be a warm, kind influence on those around you. Don’t worry if you slip – simply reset your intention and start again.

In reaching out to help others, you regain some of your influence on the world around you. And you can find a sense of meaning and purpose in difficult times.

COVID-19 - Counselling and Psychotherapy for Adults and Teens, Online Therapy, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth

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Sarah Hamilton is a psychotherapist, counsellor and writer based in the Welsh borders.
She sees clients at her private clinic in Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire, and also offers online therapy by secure video link.

Want help dealing with stress, anxiety or uncertainty?

Counselling and Psychotherapy, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth