Anxiety can feel profoundly unpleasant. As one young man, let's call him Patrick, said to me recently, "I'm so anxious that I feel nauseous. And I'm shaking all over." Although we may not all experience anxious feelings that are as intense as Patrick's, the sudden eruption of the global coronavirus epidemic is bringing change to many areas of our lives.
So much is changing, so fast, and with so much that is unknown about how the epidemic will develop in the future, at what emotional and financial costs, and with potential for serious illness or death. Here are therefore 23 suggestions for handling the coronavirus pandemic with maximal ease and minimal stress.
A positive view of anxiety
1. Start by keeping in mind that some anxiety is actually helpful. When dangers appear ahead, anxiety alerts us to pay attention, gather information, and map a plan of action.
2. A hyper-focus on worst-case, what-if scenarios can exacerbate anxiety intensity. So can what therapists call catastrophizing, that is, viewing situations as more dangerous than they are. Keep the problem the problem, without either minimizing or exaggerating it.
3. Remind yourself that change, in fact, is often an equal-opportunity phenomenon: Along with potential dangers and losses, it offers opportunities for new blessings.
4. Be on the alert for changes' upsides that mitigate anxiety while maximizing the likelihood of positive outcomes. Your kids have no school? OK, now we finally have time for the family to sing together, to learn a new language, to read more, to feel less time pressure, to teach everyone to cook, to exercise together, to laugh.
What's the role of uncertainty in anxiety?
5. Uncertainty about potentially negative future events fuels anxiety. For that reason, one of the best antidotes to anxiety is information. With information, we can figure out how best to respond to each of the new situations that now face us.
What can hinder anxiety management?
6. If you tend to be anxiety-prone, know that your amygdala, the brain's danger-alert mechanism, is most likely giving you excessively frequent and overly-intense danger readings. So put your thinking brain on manual control: Calm down, look around, gather information, and think instead of worrying.
7. Cognitive rigidity, that is, difficulty seeing things in new ways, is problematic in times of change. Remind yourself to stay open to new perspectives.
8. So is a habit of focusing too much on the dark side, on what is lost or wrong. Sure, see the problems that could emerge. And then ask yourself, "What good changes could come of this? And what can I do to further these?"
9. By contrast, a positive sense of humor, flexible thinking, and collaborative problem-solving dialogue with friends and family members facilitate adaptation to a new normal.
The most vital anti-anxiety action plan
10. To utilize the potential benefits of anxiety, convert your worrying to thinking. Sit down and give the following three-step recipe a spin:
- Begin by spilling out all your worries from your head onto paper or your computer. Write a list of all of the specific anxious thoughts you can bring to mind. Number them as you write.
- Circle back then to address each item on the list one by one. What further information do you need to be able to address each specific concern? Where can you find that information? For each specific concern, devise a plan of action.
- While just having made action plans already is likely to have brought you anxiety relief, complete the process by moving into action mode. Implement, one by one, each action plan. With each action, the odds zoom up that you will now feel forward-moving. No more spinning your wheels with useless worry. Problems are for solving.
Once you have listed and addressed the problems that have triggered your anxiety, you can add any or all the following options:
11. Talk with friends and family members who are adapting more easily. Learn from them to reframe problems so they look less dire.
12. Take action: Instead of worrying, do something, anything, that moves you in the direction of solving problems. As one anxious person said to me, "I was so anxious about food shortages I was shaking. Then as soon as I began shopping in the crowded grocery store to stock up, the shaking disappeared."
13. Patrick went on to add, "I think that it helped too that I went there with a friend. We talked, and even were making jokes about the situation." Patrick was so right. Action plus interaction with friends, plus humor ... that's a great three-part formula.
More calming options
14. Go outside and enjoy nature's healing sunshine, greenery, and blue skies.
15. Enjoy music; music has great power to calm the soul and also to pump up your energies if you are feeling down.
16. Exercise, eat well, and sleep lots to stay in maximal physical condition. Fatigue decreases problem-solving ability and increases worst-case scenario thinking.
17. Treasure your family and friends. Refrain from all criticism and anger. If there's a problem, issue requests, not complaints. Rejoice in this chance to spend more time together.
18. Look for opportunities to express gratitude and appreciation.
19. Practice altruism. Anything you do that helps others will result in your feeling better as well.
20. Accept that you are responsible just for what you personally can do. The rest is in others' hands. If you trust also a higher power above, in these times that is likely to serve you well.
21. While information-seeking can be helpful, balance information-seeking from news reports with enjoying your life. Do things you always wished you had time to do. Launch projects that give you a sense of purpose. Focus primarily on what for you makes life worth living.
22. Open almost any prayer book to almost any page. Prayer, which often focuses on appreciating, can feel particularly potent in the face of difficult challenges. Feeling in contact with "a friend upstairs" upon whom you can rely for an eventually positive outcome also helps.
23. To be sure that you will feel better as the coronavirus crisis passes, take the current "novel" situation as a series of opportunities to learn to adapt to changes with ever-growing relaxed creativity.
Wouldn't it be lovely if the result of these anxious times were to be that you have learned to enjoy a less emotionally overreactive and consistently more loving lifestyle!
For further self-help options
As the saying goes, "We live in interesting times." It's up to us whether we will experience these interesting times as a curse or a blessing.