As you settle into some sort of routine while adjusting to changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, you may notice a difference in your mood, your thoughts, and how you interact with others. At the time of writing this, Canada has 40,190 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. Worldwide, there are 2.7 million confirmed cases, and approximately 185,000 deaths. As a result of the nature of this pandemic, all of Canada's provinces have stay-at-home orders. This means that everyday life as we know it has been significantly changed. With the closure of non-essential businesses and safe physical distancing advisories, we are called upon to make adjust the way we go about our daily routines.
Previous blog posts addressed adjusting to these changes, including how to manage the emotional upheaval we experience. While working with some of my clients during this period, I realized that as much as we encourage paying attention to and treating anxiety, many people may not actually know when they are experiencing anxiety. Keep in mind that anxiety manifests itself in different ways for different people. What I've outlined below shouldn't be considered exhaustive, but may be helpful in alerting you to take care of emotional needs effectively. Additionally, for the more physiological presentations of anxiety, it is always advised to seek medical advice/attention to rule out any medical needs or emergencies.
Listen to your Body
Our emotions always show up in our body. When emotionally heightened (for example, when we perceive a threat to our survival), our brain and the rest of our biological systems communicate in a way that optimize physiological functions to ensure our survival. So our heart rate may increase as an increase in adrenaline gets pumped through our blood vessels preparing for fight or flight. Our digestive system may slow down, our muscles become more tense, and our breathing becomes heavier. All of this is to ensure our survival in case we need to attack a threat (fight) or run away (flight). Sometimes we may also experience a freeze response, particularly when we are overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness.
In reality, our flight/fight biological response may feel like muscle aches, head and tummy aches, difficulty breathing, sweating, dizziness etc. Controlling for other underlying health issues, what you may be experiencing is anxiety. Again, to be sure, it is highly recommended you seek the advice and input of a medical professional. However, there are steps you can take to manage some of these symptoms. These include engaging in deep breathing, doing a workout or some form of physical activity, or shifting your mind to positive thoughts that enhance feelings of control.
Does it seems you have been moving a lot lately? You may find yourself unable to sit still, or pacing a lot. This is one of the features of anxiety. The thing about anxiety is that it is a response to an uncertain threat. The function of anxiety is to be alert and prepared for some (nebulous) eventuality. The restlessness you feel is your body and mind's way to activate you to do something to avert that threat. What sometimes happens, though, is that we end up reacting in ways that are not necessarily helpful, but it makes us feel better because we feel we have a sense of control. The hoarding of bathroom tissue is a good example of this.
Sleeplessness and Overthinking
I have put these two together because sleeplessness (barring any other health risk factors that may account for this) is often likely a result of a worried or overthinking mind. I would often hear clients say "It's like I can't turn my brain off!" During this time of having to constantly change plans and adjust to new and different routines, our thoughts go into overdrive, especially if we feel our safety and future are threatened in some way. The truth is, we actually can't turn our mind off. But we can try to manage our thoughts in a way that allows us to get the rest we need to function effectively:
1. Set aside worry time. Yes, you read that correctly. Actually set aside time during the day to worry. And do this during your peak awake time, several hours ahead of bedtime. When you block time to confront your anxious thoughts, you're giving attention to the emergency alarm system that is triggering you anxiety response. Use this time well by identifying the factors over which you have control, and make an action plan to address them.
2. Meditate before bed. Take some time to focus your mind in an environment that has minimal distractions. You can do this right before bed. A simple exercise is to engage in rhythm of deep breathing, focusing only on your breaths. Other strategies include using background sounds such as chimes, a bell, a tactile instrument (such as a stress ball) and focusing your attention on these. If you find your mind wandering, it's okay. Once you take notice of this simply bring your attention back to the object of your focus. There are numerous apps and YouTube resources available to help you with this, so feel free to explore and identify what approach may be right for you.
3. Let it go. A sizeable proportion of thoughts that trouble your mind may be about things over which you have no control; things you can't change. As distressing as this may be, you'll find that it is unhelpful to focus your time and attention on matters that you will likely do nothing about in that moment. And for matters over which you can exercise some degree of control, remember you would have already addressed them in step 1 above. Also, it helps to remind yourself that your thoughts are a collection of perceptions about our experiences, real, imagined, or anticipated that may not be happening anywhere else in that moment except in your mind. Once you realize this, you are more likely able to stay present, and focus on what is actually happening in the here and now.
Be sure to look out for Part 2 of this blog post. In the meantime, take a look at other related posts that you may find helpful during this time:
If you would like to discuss your therapeutic needs, and would like to explore the possibility of starting therapy, feel free to contact me by calling 416-688-5274, or by booking a free initial consult at heartspringtherapy.ca/book-online. Video therapy sessions are available.