by Corinne Gnepf, LCMHCA, NCC
Undoubtedly, these recent months have not gone by without leaving marks on you. It is likely that at one point or another you have felt anxious, distressed, upset or depressed because of how Covid-19 has impacted you. Many more people around the world have experienced a heightened level of anxiety as lives, jobs, family routines, livelihoods, and relationships have been impacted or threatened. Forced isolation, social distancing, the worries about loved ones, missing out on milestone events such as weddings, graduations, anniversaries, and other special events takes a toll. Being stuck in a tight space with people who you love but can seriously get on your nerves, or with people who are unsafe to be around can be highly stressful. Being faced with too many deaths and the risk of working in the health care system is traumatic. All of these and many more can cause severe distress. Many people have gotten infected, struggled for every breath, fought back to live. All of these scenarios are difficult, period.
In addition, the future is uncertain. There is no time frame for when the infection rated of Covid-19 will be mitigated or when a vaccine will be available, no established plan or procedure on how to deal with the unknown aftermath and possible complications. This is scary and challenging. In this country, the expression “new normal” is currently being used everywhere. This is a concept that is used in grief counseling. It describes life after a person has suffered a loss and continues to live with the ongoing impact of the loss. What the new normal will look like is something we all have to find out, and this is a process and journey into the unknown.
Experiencing anxiety in the light of such challenges is a normal reaction because anxiety is a natural response to stress. You might have mild symptoms of distress and anxiety or they may be quite severe and incapacitating. However, living with ongoing uncertainty, heightened levels of stress and arousal, and/or coming face to face with the threat to health and life can lead to more serious mental health issues such as clinical anxiety, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression.
The goal of this article is to provide information about what anxiety is, strategies to help you take care of your mental health in stressful times like this, and what you can do should you continue to suffer from anxiety.
Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling, one that we all know and experience. Occasional bouts of anxiety are natural; it is part of being human. The anticipation of doing a presentation in front of a group, going for a visa interview, planning to apologize to a person you have wronged, etc. can result in nervous, anxious feelings and physical sensations such as a tight stomach, sweaty palms, thoughts going wild, or being preoccupied with the impending risk of vulnerability. In such situations we are afraid and nervous about the outcome. We are designed to feel fear and anxiety because these emotions help us to be alert which helps us take steps to increase our safety.
Experiencing fear is usually directly tied to a concrete situation, object, or person, and it is quite possible that what someone is afraid of may take place. For example, fear kicks in when you see a barking dog running toward your toddler or you hear someone trying to break into your house. In such moments your whole body responds to this threat: The heart beats faster pumping blood to your muscles which enables you to respond right away. This is what we call the fight or flight response. Fear is the internal response to an external threat.
Anxiety has more of an internal than an external focus and the triggers are more diffuse and vague, like worry that “something bad will happen” or that you might be “losing control.” Anxiety occupies the mind with worries about future events and scenarios that seem so real in our mind that we believe they are going to happen for sure. Most of the time the anticipated outcome is bad or even catastrophic.
Anxiety is not just in a person’s head; it is very much a physiological state as well. Physiologically, anxiety produces very similar sensations as fear does, such as a rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, alertness, but also sweaty palms, shortness of breath, dizziness, queasiness, or a dry mouth. Anxiety can make a person restless, uncomfortable, and incapable of concentrating. Anxiety frequently leads to avoiding behavior around the issues in which the person believes “something bad is going to happen.” When anxiety is pervasive or continues over time, it interferes with life in increasingly broad ways. It can lead to missing work, limiting social contacts, increasing isolation, or constantly feeling on edge both physically and mentally and thus reducing productivity and effectiveness. Anxiety can appear in different forms and intensity levels, ranging from a mild uneasiness to a full-blown panic attack. It can be tied to specific situations such tight spaces, spiders, being in public places, or it can be more “free flowing” and “coming out of the blue.”
A common struggle I have heard from clients who live with anxiety is that people around them do not seem to understand that it is a real issue. Many are told by well-meaning people that they just need to trust God more, that perfect love casts out fear. When Scripture is used like this it creates another problem, namely that of doubting their faith or labeling it as failure to trust God’s love. The context of this verse does not say that you should not be afraid of what might happen or not be scared in times of trouble. It says that there is no punishment for those who believe in Christ. Your soul is redeemed. Christians are not exempt from fear. There are so many verses in Scripture encouraging us to “fear not” because we do live in a world that is full of occasions that trigger fear in us. Paul Tournier, a Christian psychiatrist, said that faith does not suppress fear but instead acknowledges it and goes forward in spite of feeling afraid/anxious/worried. Faith takes the fear to God. Fear and hope are two motivators. Fear causes you to say, “I can’t do it” and holds you back, even to the point of being paralyzed by it. Hope is the motivating force. It allows you to say, “I can do this. I will continue to move forward in the midst of this uncertainty.”
Whether you are experiencing a few symptoms of anxiety or are struggling with many, here are some steps you can take to overcome it:
- Take deep breaths. This is quick, easy, free, and it really works. It is unobtrusive so you can use it even when you are with others or in public without others noticing. Breathe in through your nose and feel how your lungs fill with air. Hold your breath for four seconds before you breathe out slowly through your mouth. You can follow a 4-3-4 pattern: Breath in for four seconds, hold your breath for three seconds, then breath out for four seconds. Continue to breathe deeply until your mind begins to settle and your body relaxes. Practice deep breathing three times a day so that you will be able to use it easily and almost automatically when needed to help you overcome anxiety. As you get more experienced try out a 4-7-8 pattern.
- Practice gratitude. Science has shown that one’s mood and perspective on life improves significantly when we practice gratitude regularly. This is a choice to focus regularly on the parts of your life that you are thankful for, helping you to put the challenging parts in perspective as you balance them with the things you are thankful. Even in the darkest times at least one thing a day can be found to be grateful for.
- Connect with people. Since isolation increases focus on the anxious thoughts, push through it to maintain key relationships. Create a list of safe, supportive people you can connect with and make at least one call or schedule one virtual visit a day.
- Be physically active. This is a well-known strategy that has the immediate effect of releasing the antsy and penned up energy in your body, elevating your mood, and improving nighttime sleep patterns. Thirty minutes daily of whatever kind of physical activity you most enjoy will pay significant dividends.
- The future belongs to the Lord. The greater the uncertainty the greater the need for control, because it reduces the helplessness. Make a list of the things that you can control in the stressful circumstances and another list of those you cannot control. Intentionally take the time to leave the things you cannot control to God. Hand each one specifically into His caring and capable hands, and actively accept from Him what He promises in return: peace, comfort, joy, hope, or whatever else you need from Him in this situation. Repeat this giving the areas outside your control to Him as often as needed, sometimes every few minutes in very difficult situations.
- Actively take steps to control the aspects of the situation that are within your power to impact. Consciously and actively switch your focus from the parts of the situation you cannot control to the next step in dealing with the part you can control. Take that next step today, as soon as possible. One small step forward defeats the anxiety in significant ways. Then take the next step. This shows you that you do have control and you can make a difference in the situation, even if the only area you have control over is your attitude in the situation. Movement forward conquers anxiety one step at a time.
- Remain hopeful. Realize that this challenging and difficult time will end, too. At some point you will be able to look back at this and see the whole picture, even if only in heaven. Our source for hope is God Almighty, whose character and promises are the strongest anchor in difficult, painful, uncertain situations. He doesn’t change. He is all powerful. And He sees you, cares for you, and is with you in this situation. Choose to hope daily, anchoring it in the unchanging character of your loving Father and declare it out loud to yourself and write it down so you can have it with you the next time anxiety rears its head.
- Fight against negative thinking. Challenge your automatic negative thoughts and look for evidence that contradicts and defeats them. Replace your negative thinking with true statements about God, yourself, and the situation. Write down the truths so that you can state them over and over again to yourself each time the lies resurface in your mind until the truths gradually and persistently overpower the lies.
- Smile and laugh. Research has proven and Scripture declares that laughter is strong medicine for changing mood, and putting struggles and worries into perspective. Tell each other jokes, watch funny videos or your favorite comedian, or recall fun memories together. You cannot feel anxious and laugh at the same time.
- Reach out for professional help if you cannot seem to shake the anxiety off. It is wise to reach out to others when a situation is more than you can cope with alone. None of us was created to cope with life alone. One of the characteristics of resilient people is the ability to reach out for help, to accept help when needed. Talk to a trusted friend or family member, counselor, pastor, or member care personnel about your struggles.
Counselors at Olive Tree understand the complexities and stressors of living on the field, and have helped many work through the causes and impacts of stressors, anxiety, and uncertainty. We are available through video counseling to provide a listening ear and professional counseling help in this unprecedented time of uncertainty and stress. Contact us at olivetreecounseling.org to schedule an appointment.
The good news is that you can overcome the debilitating effects of anxiety! And it doesn’t have to be a long, painful process. These steps can overcome it if it’s not pervasive, and counseling can help you overcome it if it’s been longer term.