Maybe it feels like a vague sense of fear, that something bad is going to happen. Perhaps you lie awake with recurrent thoughts of some major or minor disaster happening in your life. Or it hits you with full-blown panic, pupils dilated, heavy breathing, sweaty palms and a racing heart.
No matter its presentation, anxiety is an uncomfortable state of mind and being. Rates of anxiety have tripled in the past year. Those with preexisting anxiety are finding it more difficult to cope and even those who haven’t been particularly anxious have found much to worry about. COVID and its attendant fall-out have set us all up for some anxious moments, but if anxiety becomes a persistent way of thinking and feeling, here are some helpful tips.
At the most basic, remedies for anxiety fall into three broad categories:
Psychological/mind-body therapies for anxiety are plentiful and varied, adaptable to each individual. Some examples include mindfulness, meditation, guided imagery, journaling, visualization, acceptance, focusing and other useful techniques.
I regularly recommend, “The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook” by Martha Davis to my patients. Just working through a few chapters provides new life skills in coping with stress and dealing with the anxiety that accompanies it.
A best-evidenced method of managing anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps us to replace maladaptive thought patterns — “stinkin’ thinkin’” — with thoughts that are more problem solving, creative, calming and realistic.
On a physical level, we need to dampen the more or less continuous flight-or-fight reaction that characterizes anxiety. The simplest and most available techniques are breathing exercises, particularly diaphragmatic breathing that resets the tone of our vagus nerve and other sympathetic and central nerve processes.
Check out the 4-6-7 breathing method. Progressive muscle relaxation, calming exercises like yoga and tai chi or more vigorous aerobic or resistance exercise can help us reduce the extra adrenalin and cortisol circulating during times we are anxious. Art or music therapy, aromatherapy or hypnotherapy are further options.
Of course, in contemporary medicine, there’s a pill for every ill and medications such as serotonin re-uptake inhibitors form the mainstay of medical and psychiatric treatment for anxiety. Certain herbs and supplements such as valerian, chamomile or magnesium also can be calming.
On a metaphysical level, simple reaffirmation of a belief in ultimate good, in divine order, grace, miracles, faith and the goodness of humanity are all lifelines to save us from drowning in the clutches of anxiety and bring us to a solid ground of calm and peaceful being and function.
This level is approached in a variety of ways, from a variety of faith traditions and belief systems. It almost always involves reflection, prayer, a gratitude practice, opening us up to a reconnection with meaning in our lives, our community, our family and ourselves.
So, while COVID has shown up loud and unexpectedly on our doorstep, we don’t need to let anxiety in too. And if it’s already there, show it the back door.