It started out with an anxious thought about the fact that your parents aren’t social distancing properly. Then you start deep cleaning the house, and before you know it, it’s 4 a.m., you’re scrubbing the shower grout with a toothbrush and worrying about whether or not you should have taken that job offer you turned down back in January. Seems random, right? It isn’t.
If you’ve been finding yourself worrying more in general lately, you might be stuck in what we like to call an “anxiety pyramid.” It’s when an anxiety provoking situation (like a global pandemic) worsens your anxiety in all areas. Not fun. “The COVID-19 pandemic is traumatic. Traumas can exacerbate existing anxieties and fears, often bringing underlying emotions and problems to the surface,” explains Sarah Powers, Licensed Clinical Therapist at Tia.
Thankfully, you don’t have to stay stuck in your anxiety pyramid for the foreseeable future. Here, three mental health experts share their tips for getting yourself out of it.
1. Know that what you’re feeling is normal
“I would hope that people suffering with anxiety during this coronavirus context could know and understand that any reaction they are experiencing is normal,” says Dr. Angele Close, a therapist based in Chicago. “It is understandable and human to experience unsettling and even distressing thoughts, feelings and sensations during these circumstances.” So while experiencing heightened anxiety certainly doesn’t feel good, you can relax a bit knowing that there’s nothing wrong with you for feeling this way. Try not to judge yourself for it, as that will make you feel even worse. “I recommend approaching your emotions in a way that validates them. Once you’ve acknowledged your feelings as valid, you can offer yourself comfort and soothing,” says Close.
2. Identify which coping strategies help you
If you were feeling relatively fine before quarantine, you may not even be aware of what coping strategies work for you. Now’s the time to identify them, says Close. Think about things that make you feel more relaxed—whether it’s going for a walk or calling a friend—and come up with a list of activities that help you. Whenever you’re feeling anxious, consult the list for ideas.
3. Stick to a routine
If you’ve established some semblance of a quarantine routine, stick to it. If not, create one ASAP. Powers suggests starting with something small like making your bed every morning or showering before work, even though you won’t be leaving your house. “Creating a routine will help give you a sense of control, which in turn helps to ease anxiety,” she explains. Good to know.
4. Try reality testing
Worrying about something that could or might happen in the future? Reality testing will help stop those thoughts in their tracks. “Identify your fear and separate it from what’s happening in the present,” advises Powers. For example, if you’re worried that having a fight with your partner means you’ll break up, remind yourself that all couples fight and that you’re still together right now. Spiraling about the possibility of coming down with COVID-19? Remind yourself that in this moment you’re healthy and safe.
5. Practice diaphragmatic breathing
“Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the best practices to help calm the body in a pinch,” says Close. It involves breathing deeply into the belly, rather than the shallow chest breathing most of us are used to. Exhaling slowly through the mouth will help to combat the body’s stress response, she explains. To make sure you’re doing it right, place a hand on your stomach and feel it expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale.
6. Use a grounding technique
Grounding techniques are exercises that bring you back to the present moment. “They’re helpful for when you feel yourself spiraling out and need to bring yourself back down to Earth,” says Powers. One technique she recommends is picking a square object in your field of vision (like a picture frame or window) and noticing the lines of the square. Start on the left side and inhale for a count of five as you move your eyes vertically up the outline of the square. Then slowly exhale as you move your eyes horizontally across the square. Repeat the process to complete the outline. Do this two or three times to really feel a sense of calm.
7. Seek help if you need it
Sometimes, we simply aren’t able to manage anxiety on our own. And that’s OK. If the anxiety becomes unbearable, seek help from a therapist, suggests Irina Firstein, a licensed therapist based in New York City. Most therapists and psychiatrists have transitioned to phone or video chat sessions, so you can even make an appointment while social distancing. And if you’re worried about cost, check out these free therapy resources.