Anxiety has been my basic ‘mode of existence’ for years. As long as I can remember, one of my main motto’s in life has always been ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’. I have chosen to acknowledge the paralyzing fear inside, and after considering the pros and cons I usually choose action and prepare to let anxiety wash over me.
There are many benefits to inaction, mainly to protect yourself from the potentially harmful effects of exposing yourself to failure and ridicule from others (I would however argue, as an introvert, that the harshest punishment is still the internal, ever present voice shouting ‘I told you you would fail’). But, as I found over the years, and more and more as time goes by, the sad sight of the inner parent, slowly shaking their head in disappointment at yet another missed opportunity, an experience that is now never to be had, has been overwhelmingly the one which leaves the sourest taste in the mouth. And so I have always chosen to live with my fears, embrace them like good old friends and allow them in my life, usually at some discrete distance where I can safely keep an eye on them.
Recently, my anxiety has found a new ally. It is an invisible one. You can not see it, smell it or touch it, but it’s wreaking havoc in the world around us, and has, in a short period of time, changed the way we lead our lives. It is threatening our livelihoods, our previous ways of existence and our mental health. It’s called Covid-19.
I’m sure many of you will agree that we do live in unprecedented times. Sure, there was the SARS epidemic many years ago. But compared to the effects of Covid-19, it nowadays feels like a gentle breeze set against a typhoon. Since the coronavirus epidemic, we have been told to self-isolate and to socially distance ourselves. Social media and TV reports are full of indignant voices, exposing people who are not keeping to the ‘rules’ (which, must be added, have been strongly varying from day to day and from country to country); we see police forces deploying drones to spy on perpetrators who go out for a walk or a drive. We hear of people getting fined for driving without a good reason, or going to the shops with more than one member of the same household at the same time. And, at the furthest extremes of the spectrum, regimes which already didn’t think too highly of human rights or press scrutiny, are now using the opportunity to curb freedoms, limit press expressions of disagreement and impose draconian measures for indefinite periods of time.
It is no wonder that in these times where we feel our freedom of movement, sense of control and opportunity to earn livelihoods are strongly restricted or even depleted, people’s natural feelings of anxiety and fear are particularly heightened and amplified. Most of us do understand of course the necessity of most measures imposed in order to limit the spread of the virus and save human lives. But at the same time, living in a seemingly indefinite period of restrictions, loss of control and finger pointing at every attempt at human activity outside of our homes, does little to help people’s fragile mental health states.
No one really knows at the moment how long this situation is going to last, and whether the epidemic will completely go away. But most experts agree we could be in it for a long period of time, a period in which we will have to settle for lifestyles and activities which are strongly restricted compared to our usual routines. There are of course opportunities within this global crisis, some of which I will touch upon later in this article. But the first question arising for many of us dealing with the current uncertainty, is ‘what now?’ How can I manage my anxiety, get a sense of control again in my life, and start creating a renewed sense of normalcy?
Isolation can easily breed anxiety. Human beings are social animals and typically, our anxiety levels rise when we spend long times restricted from our usual social activities. Notice that I highlighted the terms ‘our usual’, as normality is something typically defined individually, based on what we consider sufficient or enough social contact. The key is however in the restrictions we feel when it comes to relating to others. It doesn’t matter whether we socialize every day, or once a year. Anxiety comes when we feel we have lost control of our levels of socialization, and aren’t in charge of how often we interact with others any more. So rule number one for coping with anxiety in an era of social distancing, is: Communicate with others, and don’t isolate yourself mentally. Share how you feel about this new situation, whether it’s face-to-face, over the telephone or on social media. No communication method is more ‘valid’ than any other; just use the communication channels you would typically use, and if these typically take the shape of Facebook rants and Twitter updates, so be it. It’s ok to feel frustrated and inadequate in periods of global stress and uncertainty. It’s also ok to let others know that this is the case. More often than not, you will find that talking about how you feel about your isolation will encourage others to do the same, and you will find that people are generally more vulnerable and worried than they would like to admit. For that reason they will seek connections too, hoping for answers at a time where so many questions are being asked of the things we normally take for granted.
What else triggers anxiety? When we are anxious we can’t see clearly ahead of us. There is a giant monolith erected obscuring our vision ahead, and it seems so big that it deflects all light and hides the way out of the room. Typically, anxiety makes our problems seem big. So rule number two becomes break down big problems into their smaller components. This is a technique I often use with my coaching clients in order to help them break down what appear like massive, impossible goals into smaller actionable steps. This often leads to goals being achieved quicker and more effectively, because the client can see the value of taking these smaller steps separately, which will in turn lead to the big issue being tackled with more confidence and with a proper plan in place.
Imagine that you main anxiety stems from the uncertainty around the length of time in which government restrictions will affect your lifestyle and day-to-day life. It feels like your isolation and social distancing will last forever. The night is long and the dawn seems far away. What if you break this big, rather vague fear into its smaller components? It could then be broken down into:
- I fear that the government will use the crisis to impose restrictions on whenever I choose to go out of my house
- I fear that my intentions will be questioned every time I leave my home
- I fear that neighbours will ‘spy’ on me and judge me based on my activities outdoors
- I fear that I won’t be able to remain in charge of my feelings under the pressure, and that I will have a public meltdown which will create more fear and shame
By breaking down the big, ‘vague’ anxiety into more specific fears, you are now more in control. You can decide which of the above you can tackle, and which not. Even knowing that there will be things you won’t be able to tackle right now, will help you take decisions on which things you should concentrate on, because you can actually do something about them. What is the chance you might have a public meltdown? What little steps can you take to ensure the pressure doesn’t get on you, and that you remain firmly in charge of your emotions? Are there any breathing and meditation techniques you can use to create inner peace and take control of your internal emotions?
As it can be seen above, a lot of this breaking down into smaller chunks leads to a sense of greater control. And taking control of your life is rule number three for overcoming anxiety in times of social distancing. Here it needs to be stressed that it’s not possible to take control of every single aspect of your life. However, it is possible to regain some sense of control in most of these areas. As a small business owner myself, and having been interacting with other business owners throughout the crisis, I noticed that taking control of finances, to the extend that this is possible, is the number one mitigating factor for tackling anxiety. Notice that taking control doesn’t necessarily mean ‘solving’ your financial issues. These could be there for a long time to come, and there will be inevitably elements about the world we live in, including the collapse of some financial markets and a new era of recession we will be most probably entering, which can’t be fully controlled. What you can control however, is your reaction to all this. Will you act angrily, resigned, confused and panic-driven, or will you decide to take things as they come, prioritize direct debits and standing orders which you can defer and delay, and cut unnecessary costs? Your reaction now will determine to a large degree how you will cope in the months to come. Take a long view of things and decide now what you can afford to pay, and what will have to wait. Remember that there will be a time when things return to normal, and ensure that you won’t be one of the many who will go bust then. By managing the bills you can pay now and avoiding to cut essential services and standing orders which will be difficult to restore afterwards, you are already taking the steps you need to be ahead of the pack. You will retain control not only throughout the period of the crisis, but also afterwards, when the true aftermath will hit those who have been cutting unwisely and racking up debts which will now need to be repaid.
This brings me to the last point to tackle anxiety, which is to see the big picture. I truly believe that this challenging time can be a great opportunity for us to reconnect with the things we truly love. Things we do because we love doing them, not because they bring money or are somehow expected by the society we live in. This is a good time to create your ideal environment, your ‘centre’ which brings you inner peace, tranquility and happiness. This can be a place within your house, or somewhere near your home. Even better, it can be a place in your mind, a place to which you can always return for inspiration, rest and perfect alignment with your values. The ‘big picture’ is your ‘why’, the reason you want to return to your centre over and over again. It is the place where all creative activity starts, the place where you connect with your inner voice, and allow it to be amplified. It is where your vision for tomorrow starts. There are a number of visioning exercises you can do to get to that point. One of my favourite ones is called the rocking chair exercise. It asks you to imagine being a 90-year old sitting in your rocking chair. The exercise helps you see the vision you already have within you for your life. As you sit in your rocking chair, a blissfully healthy and happy 90-year-old, you are looking back over your ideal life. Take some time to write a story and paint a picture of your life with words. Who are you as a person, and what is it about you that people value? What have you achieved in your life, and what are you proud of? What is giving you a sense of fulfillment? Consider how your life unfolded over a number of key areas, such as family, health, friends, significant other, career, fun/leisure and personal development. What did you do in service, leadership or in your community? Finally look around you. What do you see? What can you hear? What shows you are truly happy?
Writing down the answers to the questions above and perhaps drawing a picture involving them (if you are a visual person), will create alignment with your ‘why’ and the values which are driving you right now, perhaps without you even noticing. You will be in tune with your big picture again. Times of big change such as the one we currently live in, will give you a great opportunity to embrace these somewhat neglected values, and align yourself again with what truly matters in your life.
Kostas The Coach is a Psychologist, Life and Small Business Coach and NLP Practitioner based in Llantwit Major, Wales. I help people of various backgrounds find the ideal intersection between profit, joy and values in their lives, and I assist businesses to grow sustainably while remaining aligned to their why.
If any of the topics discussed here has intrigued you, I would love to hear your thoughts. You can email me on Kostasthecoach@gmail.com or contact me via telephone or SMS or 07725653870.