Feeling anxious? Tips for coping in the age of catastrophe

As a nation we are anxious. We are on alert. Every time we open social media or read/listen to news or weather we hear about the latest global catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. Whether it is a super storm, a school shooting, a virus, the death of a ocean coral, it is always presented to us in the most extreme terms. It is designed to heighten our already anxious minds.  

Its not that these events aren't real, or that they won't have an impact on us eventually. Some of them will, some of them may not.  Just thinking about these events, imagining what impact they have on people near and far, triggers the protective mechanism in our bodies known as the flight or fight response.  We may not even be aware that it is happening, but as our bodies ramp up, we begin to experience muscle tension, headaches, restlessness, insomnia, stomach pains, and just plain exhaustion.  It makes it harder to focus on the things that require our attention right now. Harder to make big and small decisions, We experience decision fatigue and get overwhelmed by loud noises or messy environments. 

I can't change the media. So what do I do? 

Help your body let go of readying itself for danger:

Stretch when you get out of bed or any time you feel tight or tense

Get active in any way that increases your heart rate

Breathe. When we are tense we breathe shallowly. Deep slow breathing helps to turn on our calming nervous system. It works best if you exhale first, then slowly inhale. Notice how much air you can fit in your lungs. Then slowly exhale until you are empty. Repeat.

Use relaxation and mindfulness apps. I am a fan of Headspace, Calm, Relax Melodies. Find one where the person’s voice is appealing to you.

Ground yourself in the present by paying attention to your five senses. You can do this while you do other things (eating a meal, rocking a baby, taking a walk) or being still. Go through each sense and ask yourself to notice. Your thoughts will distract you. When you get caught up in a thought, notice it happened, then refocus on the sense you were paying attention to.

Help your mind let go of worry.

Practice labeling your thoughts as helpful problem solving vs unhelpful worry.

Practice delaying worry. Plan a time each day for unhelpful worry. Be specific – what time and how long.  10-30 minutes is usually sufficient for this exercise. During that time you can sit and think, or even better – write down your worries.  Throughout the day when you notice yourself worrying, remind yourself “Now is not the time to think about this. I will save it for worry time.”

Set small goals for yourself each day. Make them small and doable. I will text one friend. I will go outside and take a few deep breaths. I will stretch before bed. I will do five push-ups when I want to yell. I will write down one thing I am grateful for each day.

Plan one thing each day that is just for you. You may be caretaking all day. You may be caretaking while also trying to work. You need something for you or this will not be sustainable. Pleasure is an integral part of mental health.

Practice gratitude. You can even make it a game with friends. The “silver lining” game. Come up with awful scenarios and see who can come up with a positive spin the fastest.

Talk with your partner about what you both need to stay emotionally grounded. Fifteen minutes to take an uninterrupted bath? Dedicated space for each of you to work? A family walk every evening? Make a plan for how you can each gift each other with what you need.

Reach out to your social network. Even if you are an introvert a few minutes of talking with someone outside your home about something not related to the current situation can be helpful.

Intentionally talk about other topics with friends. The more we talk about local and global catastrophies, and the more we listen or read about them in the media, the more we feel like we are in danger RIGHT NOW.  Its the same phenomenon that leads people to feel that flying in an airplane is more dangerous than driving yourself to work. We don’t read about the trillions of car trips taken around the world without incident, but every plane crash gets significant media coverage. Our brains take that and make an attribution error – we hear about it more, so it must be more dangerous. Counteracting this natural misperception takes intention.

Focus on what you can control. 

Environment: Most of us feel better when our environment is calming and restorative. This can be challenging if you have little ones at home. Be realistic. Is there one room, or even a corner, that you can arrange to be a daily-stuff-of-life-free zone? A place you can go, even briefly, where you can direct your attention, take a few deep breaths, and feel a sense of calm?

Routine:  Create some routines in your day that can ground you. They can be small or big, as long as they are things that you can do for yourself no matter how you are feeling. Stretch before bed. Brush your teeth by candlelight. Take a moment to think of one thing feel good about from the day. It doesn't matter 

Practice self-compassion: Be kind to yourself. Let go of perfection and self-judgment.  Have good intentions and give yourself credit for those, even if you fall short of implementing them. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can.

Look for growth in the challenge: Challenges can force us to find strengths we didn’t know we had.  Creativity. Endurance. Perseverance. Patience. Gratitude. Self-compassion. Pay attention – what are you learning about yourself in this situation that may help you in the future?

Ask for help. If even doing these things feels like too much, or if your anxiety or overwhelm is keeping you from being able to do the basics of what is needed right now, reach out. It is possible to learn to live well, and with a calm body, with the right guidance and support. We can all white knuckle through for a little while, but eventually constant anxiety takes its toll. Don't let it win. Reach out now to start the process. 

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