I’ve been up in the middle of the night a lot lately. It’s given me the opportunity to work with my own anxiety and reflect on some of the things that can be most helpful at a time like this, with so many people struggling in personal and collective ways during this pandemic. I’ve been reflecting on the research about what we know about managing stress and coping with adversity. I’ve observed my own, and others’ ways of coping and what seems to be most helpful. Here are five coping strategies I would put on the top of my list.
1. Stay Connected — in real time and in your mind.
Social connection and social support are foundational to our well-being. When we connect with others there is often a natural calming of the nervous system that we experience. Both feeling cared for, and caring about others, can help to release chemicals into our body which are soothing and calming.
Thankfully our technology can be of help in keeping us connected during this pandemic. Ask yourself — who might you connect with today? When you are not able to connect with someone in the moment, know that even just calling up memories of caring moments in your mind, can be a helpful strategy for cultivating positive emotions and calming in the body.
Try this: When I wake up feeling anxious in the middle of the night, I have found it helpful to imagine myself surrounded by the people in my life who love and care about me, and whom I love and care about. Call to mind a person you care about. Picture their face, their voice, a loving word or gesture they might offer you. Imagine being in their presence, as if you could feel their care and support right now. Let those feelings of care sink in and soothe any parts of you that might feel anxious.
2. Come back to your senses.
Our five senses help to anchor us in the here and now. When we are anxious, we are often residing in the uncertain future. When we can bring ourselves back to the present moment and engage our senses directly, this can often help to calm the mind and body. For example, doing walking meditation and focusing on the sensations of the feet as they hit the ground can be — well, grounding. Pausing and listening to sounds around us can direct our minds to being here in this moment. Activities that engage the senses, for example, exercising, drawing or painting, cooking, listening to music, knitting, gardening, doing a puzzle, to name a few, can be helpful for many people during times of heightened anxiety. Even if the present moment is difficult, we can work with what is here. It is when our minds reside in the uncertain future, trying to solve problems that can’t be solved, that we experience even greater unease.
Try this: Make a list of what engage your senses and brings you into the present moment. Think about things that might take more time (such as an aromatic bath) as well as things that you could do on the fly (putting your hand on your heart and taking three breaths). Use this list often when you find yourself feeling anxious.
3. Identify what is within your sphere of influence and put your energy there.
Anxiety naturally mobilizes the body’s fight or flight response and increases activation of our sympathetic nervous system. This, in combination with the tendency of our mind to ruminate on things we can’t control, can leave us in a state of overwhelm or helplessness. We feel over-aroused and we have nervous energy. It can be helpful to identify where and how we can channel that energy into something active that we have some personal agency over, and that we care about. Be clear and intentional about what you can do today that you can influence, that feels nourishing or helpful for you.
Try this: Identify things within your sphere of influence including: daily ways you can take care of yourself (from making your bed to going for a walk to preparing a healthy meal or listening to an inspirational podcast); how you might make a small but positive difference in someone’s life today; what you can tend to — your family, a garden, a project; what specific actions steps can you take today that might be positive for your health, your family, your house, your community or your future?
4. Shift from threat to challenge wherever possible.
No question, the current circumstances we are facing are posing very real threats for so many people. But, when anxiety strikes, check in and ask yourself if there is an imminent danger right here in this very moment. For many people, the sense of threat and danger lies in the “what if” brain, not the “what is here right now” brain. Name the challenges that are actually here right now, and then make a list of resources that you have to meet these challenges. These resources could be both inner ones (e.g., courage, patience, ability to think outside the box to find creative solutions, commitment to what you care about, perseverance, self-compassion) and outer resources — the circles of supports you have within your family and friends, your community, the healthcare system, and other outside organizations and structures (e.g., workplace, religious communities, supportive agencies, mental health professionals).
Try this: Think about a time in the past when you faced adversity and ask yourself what most helped you get through that? What insights did you gain about your ability to handle challenges, what strengths did you draw upon at that time, that might help you now as you face new challenges?
5. Connect to your deepest values.
Identify what values are most important to you during this time. Who do you most want to be in the face of fear and uncertainty? How can you show up today in a way that might reflect those values? You don’t have to get rid of fear or anxiety, but as you turn up the volume on what you care most about, what is most important to you, this can help dial down the intensity on the anxiety. For instance, I have found that when I spend time on meaningful endeavors (such as writing this blog), my anxiety doesn’t tend to take front and center stage.
Try this: In a recent interview psychologist Dr. Robert Brooks shared a question he often asks people to reflect on: what words would you hope people would use to describe you by (during this pandemic or otherwise), and what might you intentionally do or say today to help make that so?