Now that the gradual reopening is upon us, it’s interesting to see the continuum of responses. From elated to cautiously optimistic to downright terrified, how ever you’re feeling, that’s ok. It makes sense, after all, to have some worry about this next phase — there are still so many unknowns out there.
While we can’t control how we feel, we can control how we respond to those feelings.
Let’s use this as an opportunity to practice accepting how and what you’re feeling as just that, feelings. They’re not something to investigate, judge, compare or share with anyone else. Practice noticing, labeling, and meeting them with compassion.
Remind yourself that “I’m not the only person feeling this way in this uncertain time.” We also have to acknowledge that during this pandemic, there are no absolutes. Even in following the advice of medical experts, there is no guarantee of safety. In order to move forward, you have to accept the possibility (note that I didn’t say probability) that you could get infected regardless of how careful you are.
Here are my 3 tips to help move through your coronavirus anxiety as states start to reopen:
- Separate what your anxiety is telling you from what the experts are telling you.
It can be helpful to take a piece of paper and make 2 columns. In the first one, write what your anxiety (or Facebook, Instagram, or any untrustworthy news source) is telling you about how to say safer during COVID-19. And in the second one, write what the CDC and your local health department says are safe guidelines. Again, there is no guarantee of safety. We’re moving forward by understanding and accepting that there is still a risk.Notice the differences.What I’ve seen are peoples’ anxiety forcing them to comply with guidelines over and above those from the CDC: “because it feels better,” “because more often and longer feels safer,” “because if we don’t, our chances of getting sick are much higher.”
- Take small steps (over and over again).
Once you decide to act, decide what you’re going to do. Depending on how much you’ve been sheltering and isolating, this will look different. For some, it will be leaving your house for a walk. For others, it might be going to a grocery store instead of getting your groceries delivered. Getting takeout or coffee (who doesn’t miss this?) Or intentionally washing your hands for only 20 seconds. Whatever you decide, try to pick something you can practice more than once (and the more the better).I’m NOT suggesting going to the grocery store unnecessarily, but if driving there or sitting in the parking lot gives you anxiety, do that over and over until you get used to the feelings. The principles here are practice and repetition.
- Practice being anxious and doing it anyway (mindset, mindset, mindset) — no white knuckling.
This is a great concept to teach, practice, and model. Remind yourself that you can be anxious/unsettled/uncomfortable AND still go to the grocery store (or wherever). Often when we’re anxious, we take that as a signal that the situation is dangerous, bad, or even threatening and, therefore, we need to avoid (or resist) it.In these times, keep in mind: expect to feel anxious. How can you not when there is so much uncertainty that still exists? What we don’t want to do is add gas to that fire through behaviors such as:- treating how you’re feeling and thinking as an emergency (instead of something that’s just really uncomfortable). It’s important to tell your brain that “I’ve got this,” and show it that it’s not an emergency by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest system). Work on slowing and deepening your breath and loosening any parts of your body that are holding tension (readying the body to fight or flee).- avoiding situations because your anxiety deems them too dangerous, even with appropriate precautions. Since the vaccine isn’t here (and it doesn’t sound like it will be for some time) and staying locked in my house doesn’t sound appealing, I have to accept the possibility that I (or my kids) could get infected, even following best practices. Does this scare me? Yes. Does it stop me from slowly taking steps back into my community? No.
– excessive “news” consumption (including social media), which, given confirmation bias, will affirm your catastrophic beliefs. My advice: pick one news source that you check once a day and make a vow to yourself not to get any “news” from social media, blogs, YouTube, etc.
– going out but “white knuckling” it. White knuckling it is fighting the experience mentally and experientially, resisting the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and engaging in behaviors (above and beyond current guidelines) to make those feelings go away. See #1 — we need to show our body that this is not a dangerous situation. If we’re white knuckling, the body doesn’t get this message.
Take stock of what you’re learning.
This one is so important and often overlooked. An important component of the work I do with my clients is processing their exposures to generalize their learning. We explore questions like
- What did you notice?
- What surprised you about the experience?
- What did it say about your ability to tolerate uncomfortable feelings?
- How would you tweak it next time?
Often this is where they make the connection that the first time was the hardest, and the more they do it, the easier it gets. They now need to practice it at different times and in different settings. This is also where they see how much progress they’re making.
If you’re not working with someone, I encourage you to journal about it. Getting it out of your head and onto paper can be a real eye-opener.
While those people who are prone to anxiety may know how therapy and coaching can help them, those of you who are experiencing overwhelming anxiety or excessive worry for the first time may not. It’s important to know that there are skills available to you to help you through it all.
And not everyone with anxiety needs therapy. That’s where coaching can come in. Either way, I encourage you to reach out to start the conversation. This situation isn’t going away any time soon, so the sooner you develop the tools to successfully pivot, the better.