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Anxiety

Post-COVID Anxiety Is Real

Here are 5 proven ways to beat it, and to benefit from post-traumatic growth.

Key points

  • It's normal to experience anxiety trauma after a life-altering dangerous event.
  • The key is to retrain your nervous system to strengthen the parasympathetic tone, or the calming response, as opposed to fight-or-flight.
Motoki Tonn/Unsplash
Source: Motoki Tonn/Unsplash

Have you noticed that you have been more hypervigilant since the pandemic? And perhaps a bit more anxious in public? After a life-altering and life-threatening event, this is normal. Any shocking situation that involves life and death can lead to trauma.

Here's why people developed it during the pandemic: In many ways, Covid-19 trained us to become hypervigilant to contact with other people or potential contamination.

Clinically speaking, hypervigilance is a trait of anxiety. So, in many ways, the pandemic may have taught some of us to be hypervigilant to stay safe. In military contexts, service members are trained to be hypervigilant for safety, to seek out signs of danger, and to avoid potential threats. When they leave the military, they often find that even if they don’t have trauma symptoms, their hypervigilance remains because it was part of their training. For example, many veterans who have long left the military still locate exits whenever they enter a building or always keenly observe their environments for signs of danger. We might, then, expect those who endured the stress of the pandemic to remain anxious and hypervigilant for quite some time.

What can we do about this? The key is to retrain your nervous system to have a greater parasympathetic tone: the calming response, as opposed to fight-or-flight. When you do so, you might see that, from any traumatic experience, there can be post-traumatic growth.

Breathing exercises are a quick, efficient, and effective way to calm down anxiety by triggering the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system. We come out of our sympathetic (“fight-or-flight”) response and return to a calmer state, our perspective broadens, and we can see things from a more rational perspective.

When you inhale, your heart rate increases. When you exhale, it slows down. Taking just a few minutes to close your eyes and lengthen your exhales (making them twice as long as your inhales) will help you calm down in minutes.

Our research has shown that one breathing technique, SKY Breath Meditation, can improve anxiety and depression while increasing well-being to a greater extent than other well-being practices, such as mindfulness. In addition. it may be a good complement or adjunct practice to traditional treatments for trauma.

Meditation: A regular meditation practice has been shown to improve stress, anxiety, and depression, boosting emotion regulation, well-being, and even physical health. The psychological benefits associated with meditation make it well worth trying out. Gentle Yoga, Tai Chi, Yoga Nidra—any physical movement or relaxation that settles the mind and induces a meditative state activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Regular practice trains your body to calm down faster and be calmer at baseline.

Nature: Exposure to nature has also been shown to profoundly benefit mental health, boosting well-being while lowering stress and anxiety. Even a limited amount of exposure can have a major impact. If you can't go out on a hike, having a poster of a nature scene on your wall can make a difference, as can a nature screen saver or a plant on your desk. That's how profoundly exposure to the natural world can impact us.

Compassion: Many studies have shown that being of service, in any capacity, improves your mental and physical health while contributing to longevity. Whether you are visiting a lonely aunt or volunteering at your local pet shelter, when you help others, it helps you. The impact of small acts of kindness or community service can be tremendous, even helping with recovery from disease.

Self-Compassion: So many of us are self-critical and hard on ourselves. In the process, we harm our mental and physical health, increasing our anxiety. Self-compassion involves treating yourself as you would treat a colleague or friend who may not have lived up to expectations in a given situation. Rather than berating, judging, and thereby adding to your friend’s despair, you would listen with understanding and encourage your friend to remember that mistakes are normal, without fueling the fire. Better mental and physical health, improved relationships, and a greater parasympathetic tone show the result of self-compassion.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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