From time to time, most of us struggle with anxiety. Unexpected and unwanted things happen, and we can become very challenged in making sense of this interruption into the daily pattern of life. Surprising events churn up feelings that we may find very confronting, and anxiety can act as a kind of ‘psychological static’ that masks these feelings. This can be a way of our psychological system protecting us from unwelcome feelings, but it also means we often can’t readily discern the emotions that run underneath our anxious state, making it harder to make sense of what we are experiencing.
At the time of writing, there is a serious pandemic happening all around the world, resulting in many people living in a state-directed lockdown situation in their homes. For most of us, these events are unprecedented. Moreover, there is much unknown about the virus, and the long-term effects (health-wise and economy-wise) of this pandemic. As a consequence, it is a very anxious time for many people.
Given the seriousness of the current situation, we can all expect to experience worry at some level. But unchecked, worry can very easily spiral into the red zone of extreme anxiety. If this is the case, what might we do? More specifically, what practical measures can we undertake to find ways of metabolising ‘red zone’ anxiety into something more manageable? What follows are some ideas that could help.
1.Talk to your anxiety
Anxiety tends to be quite a diffuse physiological state, which we experience because of fears and feelings that get stirred up. Once we get into these states, we often become very concrete in our thinking, making it harder to prune back the anxiety to see the underpinning fears and feelings. Asking ourselves what the possible sources of the anxiety might be, and letting our mind imagine what those might be, without judgment, can be a useful way of exploring what lies beneath.
One way of doing this is to creatively imagine your anxiety as a separate person or being, and to ask this ‘person’ what he or she might say about how they are feeling, and the sources of their fears. Allowing your creative imagination to work in this way can be a helpful way of getting beneath the anxiety to reveal deeper fears and feelings. In the current situation, anxiety might be traced a fear of losing control or of facing the unknown. Whilst there is no easy panacea for these kinds of fears, being able to identify them as a cause of anxiety can also help to reveal and manage the associated feelings of sadness and anger that may go along with them.
2. Limit your access to things that trigger your anxiety
A difficulty with anxiety is the way it can act like tumbleweed: hurtling along at great speed, picking up various bits of detritus, getting bigger and bigger. An important question to ask ourselves at times of crisis is whether we are perhaps engaging in activities that might fan this anxiety. For example, are you reading or watching too many news reports? Are groups or individuals you communicate with by text or online supporting you, or are these communications subjecting you to more anxiety when you are already in a vulnerable state? When society is in a state of great worry, fear can become very contagious, spreading like wildfire through the various forms of communication that so many of us rely upon in our day to day lives (Parkinson and Simons, 2012). Sometimes, it pays to limit our access to these forms of communication in order to find more stable ground internally.
3. Try and find time to do something creative
Finally, it’s important to think about the way we are using our time when in a state of anxiety. Anxiety is something that we tend to experience at both a psychological and physiological level. One way of finding a more peaceful state of mind and body is to occupy ourselves with creative activities—pursuits that you perhaps used to enjoy but can rediscover, or new ones that you always wanted to explore. Feeling of happiness and contentment are very much entwined with ‘doing’ and often doing something that challenges us, as well as engaging our creativity and playfulness (Seligman et al. 2005).
TED talk on dealing with anxiety
Short blog on the benefits of talking to ourselves
Parkinson, B., & Simons, G. (2012). Worry spreads: Interpersonal transfer of problem-related anxiety. Cognition & Emotion, 26(3), 462-479.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421