Disclaimer: This content was written and published during the COVID-19 Alert levels and lockdown and 2020. We’re keeping the article up as we think there’s still useful info and advice in here – but please remember the context in which it was written is way different to how things are now.
You deserve help if you need it, and there’s no shame in reaching out. I’m listing these services up top and again at the bottom if you need them:
- Need to talk? Call or text 1737 to talk with a trained counsellor any time.
Please reach out to the appropriate services if you’re struggling with a sudden change in your income or living situation. If you feel like your anxiety is not manageable, talk to a health professional - there’s nothing wrong with getting help or medication to support you in dealing with anxiety.
How to look after your anxiety during COVID-19 uncertainty and lockdown
Anxiety is our body’s response to stress and threats. Sometimes your brain, heart, lungs, stomach and muscles get together for a super-quick committee meeting (without your permission) and decide that you are in danger. They start working overtime to get you out of the situation and the result is… well, not a fun time.
The tricky thing about anxiety is that it can come in many forms: a nagging thought, a self-criticising question that won’t leave you alone, your stomach dropping like you’re on a rollercoaster, a tight feeling in your muscles or chest or even a full-blown heart-racing panic attack. They’re all valid experiences and you don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed of them.
However, there are ways to manage these experiences and develop the skills and confidence to push back. You can do it - I believe in you!
We’re all learning to deal with the new shape of life under the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s totally understandable that this much change might cause you to feel pretty uneasy.
Firstly let’s just address that this pandemic is an unprecedented time in all of our lives and there was no way to prepare for the feelings it has brought up for many of us. So go easy on yourself. Forgive little mistakes, let yourself off the hook for not achieving a lot and give yourself permission to look after you.
I’m not an expert and I know that I’m in a position of privilege: I’m still employed and I have a stable roof over my head. But, I promise I’m not taking this for granted and I hope that sharing my experience with anxiety might help someone else. As a person who experiences anxiety every day, I already have some tools in my belt to help with this strange new situation.
Everyone manages anxiety differently but below I will take you through my own process, including some suggestions from the wonderful counsellors at NZAF.
Slow and deepen your breathing by drawing in breath far down toward your belly and slowly letting it out again
Step one: Breathe
If a young me had known that the most important lesson I’d learn as an adult was how to breathe I would have laughed in my face, but it’s true!
Remember how I said your brain, heart, lungs, stomach and muscles were part of a committee conspiring against you? Often the freakiest part of anxiety is a feeling of helplessness as your body’s systems step into overdrive without your consent.
Abdominal breathing, yoga breathing, mindful breathing - whatever name you know it by and however you learn about it (YouTube, books, a friend, your cat), a breathing practice gives you something to focus on and anchors you in the here and now.
Mindful breathing helps to slow a racing heartbeat and release tension in your body. This can lessen the effects of your anxiety and take you closer to being back in the driver’s seat.
It’s about reducing your experience down to one single action. Focus on every little detail of your breath and notice how, bit-by-bit, those panicky tentacles zip back into the shadows like a vacuum cleaner cord.
Practice mindful breathing when you’re already feeling calm. That way, when feelings of anxiety crop up you’ll be familiar with the technique, and ready with a lungful of control to puff back at them.
Extra for experts - if you’ve just taken a deep lungful of air (and if you’re the kind of person who loves a singalong), you now have everything you need to belt out your favourite tune - try not feeling better when singing your fav banger. Combining a focus on your breath with a familiar tune can bring you back to centre in a musical way.
Step two: Acknowledge and accept
A big part of anxiety for me is not wanting to admit that it’s even happening. Like that feeling when you need to throw up but still do everything in your power not to. Puking would definitely make you feel better, but you stubbornly rock back and forth until it passes, or until you can no longer hold it in (I know this is a yucky simile, but I feel like it resonates? *shrug*).
Often when I’m feeling anxious I’ll ignore the anxiety-elephant in the room until it stomps up and taps me on the shoulder. The thing is, you can’t deal with something that you’re pretending isn’t there - and establishing truths helps to fight anxiety, which often lies to us.
Slapping a name tag on this elephant-feeling can take some of its power away (you should be picturing an elephant with a name tag on: “Hello, my name is ANXIETY”).
Next time your anxious feelings start creeping up on you, try thinking the following:
“This is anxiety I’m experiencing. I am not my feelings, I am just feeling them.”
(Protip: Saying things out loud helps them feel more concrete, but I know this can feel a little silly to start with. Give yourself permission to try it if you can).
Naming your anxious feelings can stop them from being a huge, unknowable shadow and give them shape and predictability. If you like, you could even give your anxiety a proper name: “This is Karen. Karen is here now. I am not my Karen, I’m just experiencing Karen.”
The next step is acknowledging the situation and its triggers, so you can move toward acceptance. This sounds a bit waffly, but stick with me.
Start with something very easy to acknowledge and focus on the present: the time, your location, your surroundings.
“I am in my lounge right now, sitting on my leather couch, watching the 1pm COVID-19 update.”
What you’re doing is establishing truths in the present. This brings your mind, which is likely racing ahead to ‘what ifs’, or back to ‘what did I dos’, back to what’s actually happening right now.
Now it’s time to acknowledge and accept your actual feelings at this moment.
Let’s put ourselves back in the lounge on the couch.
“At this moment I’m feeling uncertain, I’m feeling worried and I’m feeling like things are pretty scary right now.”
Take some time to accept that you are experiencing these feelings. That doesn’t mean they are a part of you or that they define you. But accepting that these feelings can happen and aren't always within your control can help ease any guilt or shame you might also be carrying.
Labelling and accepting your anxiety gives it borders and boundaries as something separate from you. This doesn’t always stop it feeling scary, but it can show you who you’re dealing with (we see you, Karen) and give you some of the power back.
N.B. It’s also super important to acknowledge and accept that things are hectic right now. It’s not all in your head, you aren’t making this up. These are legitimate feelings resulting from the trigger of a global pandemic. Remembering this helps me to let myself off the hook when I drop into spooky thinking for a bit.
The next part is to go a step further and, once you feel comfortable, try and explore what might have been the trigger for these feelings - what caused or reminded you of them? Once you know what has triggered your anxiety, you can move on to step three: change the situation.
Make a really strong peppermint tea (or your favourite non-caffeine hot drink). Really focus on only the task. Listen to the jug boiling. Take your time dunking the tea bag. Savour that first sip that’s slightly too hot. Enjoy the sigh of relief after that first sip.
Step three: Change the situation - if you can
Sometimes steps one and two might be enough to reduce your anxiety, and sometimes they might not. That’s totally okay and I encourage you to accept that too - “I’m still feeling XYZ and I need to look after myself a little more to get out of this one.”
This is where we can take back even more control, if we feel up to it, by making some changes.
So, you’re on your couch watching the 1pm COVID-19 update and you start feeling overwhelmed or anxious. Stand up, walk across the room and turn the TV off. Wait… who am I kidding? Exit the news app on your phone. Hell, turn your whole phone off.
What you’ve just done is changed your situation. You acknowledged a trigger and accepted that, in this situation, it’s better for you and your mind to get away from the thing that’s prompting these feelings by turning it off.
You could also swap the news for a calming activity - yoga, going for a walk, karaoke break, mindfulness app, a bath, organising your record collection, a quick wank, playing a game - all of these are great ways to change your situation. Obviously some situations aren’t as easy to change and some triggers are more complex. But, for the ones we can change, let’s give it a go. Heading outdoors for some sun and fresh air is also great, but if you can’t manage that, it’s cool. Try again next time.
The idea is to give yourself space from whatever has triggered you (or if you can’t put a finger on your trigger - just space in general. Space is good), so you can take back control and look after yourself.
My personal go-to is making a really strong peppermint tea. Really focusing on the task at hand: Boiling the jug. Dunking the tea bag. Taking the first sip when it’s slightly too hot. Sighing with relief after that first sip.
Step four: Go easier on yourself (and others if you can)
Anxiety often stems from our own expectations of ourselves, or our disappointment in something we’ve done. Add to this our current situation of being stuck inside, alone or in close proximity to a select few, and the stakes have never felt higher.
This means that, now more than ever, we need to go easy on ourselves, to be willing to forgive ourselves when things don’t go as planned.
A dropped glass of water, an accidentally harsh remark or a decision not to do indoor boot-camp today could be all it takes to bring back Karen. It can be really tricky, but we need to cut ourselves some slack. There is a huge level of tension already built into this lockdown situation, so don’t go tearing yourself to bits over the small stuff.
Finish work-from-home a little earlier if you need to. Extend deadlines and buy yourself some time - think double what it would normally take you. Let yourself off the hook for not working out and aim to do it the next day. If doing the dishes feels like an impossible task, leave them for tomorrow. If you’re feeling a bit snappy, ask your flatmates to forgive you in advance and tell them you’ll do the same. Put your on soppiest song and have a massive cry. Be. Kind. To. Yourself.
I’ll finish with a couple of things I think are really important right now.
- If you’re still working - remember, you are not really working from home, you’re at home during a global pandemic and you’re trying to work. Important distinction.
- You are not your feelings. They don’t define you, they just happen to you. “I am feeling my feelings, but I am not my feelings.”
- While “Stay Home” and “Stay Safe” are obviously super important messages, remember that it ends with “Be Kind”. You deserve kindness - be kind to yourself.
More tips and support services:
- If you want more ideas for grounding yourself and helping to stay anchored in the present when experiencing anxiety - click here to read a list suggested by NZAF's counsellors
- The NZ Mental Health Foundation has created a wonderful resource called Getting Through Together, all about looking after your wellbeing during COVID-19
- NZAF's own Luke recently had a story published that deals with grounding techniques to help with anxiety that is a really helpful portrayal of what it can be like to start experiencing anxiety and how to bring yourself out of that space.
- Need to talk? Call or text 1737 to talk with a trained counsellor any time.
- If you need to talk to a peer about sexuality or gender identity, call OUTLine on 0800 688 5463.
- Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)
- Anxiety Helpline – 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)