By Jessica Waters, M.A., N.L.C., M.P.S., M.P.C
Trauma, Grief, Mindfulness and Anxiety Specialist
The past week has been an incredible time for change, questioning our health safety and developing a fear of the unknown as we move forward. For many of us, myself included, our anxiety is over the top. I am someone who has struggled with panic disorder stemming from trauma. I have practiced for years the strategies in my toolbox that help me regulate and prevent panic attacks. But in extreme situations, like the initial fast movement and response needed to the pandemic, it activates my panic attacks to resurface. My toolbox includes good nutrition, breathwork, cognitive reframing, calming and positive self talk, affirmation/mantra, gentle yoga or Tai Chi and yes, some medication. I have learned through my traumatic experiences to flip a switch off when I’m in imminent danger, to deal with it, generally looking and sounding calm, cool, intensely focused and collected. I’ve had to learn that over the years as I’ve been a teacher, in charge of 27 or more students safety year after year in some of the most crazy circumstances. However, when that switch flips back on, usually when I’m sitting in my car, parked in my driveway afterwards, or in the bathroom at home, I panic. My head spins, my heart races again, my breath shortens, the room spins and sometimes if it’s really bad, I cry uncontrollably. That’s when I got out my emergency toolbox. You see there are prevention of escalation tools and then there are recovery tools. They really are pretty much the same when you look at them however.
The key to preventing our panic or high anxiety is to recognize is to focus on what we CAN control, and attempt to let go of what we can’t, we can begin to prevent anxiety and panic. What can I control during this crisis? You can turn off the news and limit time on social media looking at COVID19 related news. Focus on finding hope, affirmations, prayers, groups that are working through and reflecting positively, participate in free live meditations, prayer groups, support groups, online church services, etc. You can control how you interact with people and whether you choose to interact with reality based positivity or with negative venting. You can take a approach to shelter that embraces the opportunities to try to work on a spiritual or creative practice, spend time with kids or call grandparents and relatives, start an online or video movement practice, practice breathing and meditation, clean the house, do a little gardening, organize your computer files or your living space, etc.
There are many ways we can attempt to control our anxiety. Below are a few that I have used that have been helpful. Your mileage may vary.
Practice: Name The Fear
Being able to recognize that fear is present can be hugely important in not allowing it to control you. As you notice your heart pumping more, your chest tightening, your back stiffening, let an imaginary alarm bell go off in your head. Take 3 or 10 or 20 deep breaths, however many you need to slow your body down. Place your hand on your heart if that will help. Acknowledge to yourself, “I’m scared. I’m afraid.” Name the fear so you automatically create a bit of distance between yourself and the intensity of the emotional reaction.
Say a few phrases of well-wishing toward yourself and for others:
May (I/others) see the source of our fear.
May (I/others) be safe and free from fear.
May (I/others) be happy and at ease.
Practice: Lean in to Fear
Whenever you feel the energy of fear, don’t avoid the feeling. Sit with it. As fearful thoughts of dread and worry continue to arise, approach them with friendliness. Don’t treat them as a threat. Be kind toward yourself for being afraid. See what happens when you hold your ground and let the fear rise in your mind. You may find confidence within.
Breathwork, Mindfulness, Prayer and Meditation
These are all strategies for calming the storm within us and preventing anxiety and panic. Specific procedures can be found in my article “Remaining Resilient During a Pandemic”. There are other strategies and coping skills that can help as well.
Cognitive Reframing : A way to understand the concept of reframing is to imagine looking through the frame of a camera lens. The picture seen through the lens can be changed to a view that is closer or further away. By slightly changing what is seen in the camera, the picture is both viewed and experienced differently. Cognitive reframing is changing how you look at a given situation. That impacts how you think and interact with yourself and the world.
To engage in cognitive reframing, write down your negative thoughts. Don’t edit them. Write them down as you think of them. Some may be Automatic Thoughts, which are just like it sounds. Once you have your negative thought written down, look at ways to reframe or restate it. Ask the question, is this a true statement? Is there evidence that tells me this is true? What can I control about this thought? From there develop a positive, realistic way to speak to yourself and think about the once negative thought.
Cognitive Distortions: Distorted ways we think about things can contribute to negative outcomes, thoughts, depression and anxiety. These are the 8 most common types of cognitive distortions. At one time or another we all have engaged in these.
All or nothing thinking: You don't see middle ground. You assume if you don't get the promotion, the company wants to ease you out the door.
Overgeneralization: You extrapolate your future based on a single event. You figure that if you failed the bar exam on the first try, you're just not cut out to be a lawyer.
Minimizing and maximizing: You discount your accomplishments and inflate your errors. You made two typos in your presentation and tell yourself you've blown the whole assignment.
Fortune-telling: You predict that things will turn out badly, no matter what you say or do. Your new boyfriend doesn't call you as promised before a business trip, and you spend the week convinced he's breaking up with you.
Emotional reasoning: You believe how you feel is the way things are. You spill food on yourself at a restaurant and feel like a jerk, so you assume other people see you that way, too.
Should and ought’s: You focus on your own or other people's expectations of you. You feel you ought to help a co-worker with his project -- even though it will make you fall behind in your work.
Tunnel Vision: You only focus on the negative aspects of a situation. “My son’s teacher can’t do anything right. He’s insensitive and lousy at teaching”.
Catastrophizing: You predict the future negatively without considering other possible outcomes.
Focus on what you can control.
Use breathing, movement, meditation/prayer to help you calm.
Develop a toolbox of strategies with calm down tools you might have around the house to help you and your children or grandchildren become calm when escalated or have growing anxiety.
Irritability is often an anxiety or stress response. Speak calmly.
Others react to your energy. Try to calm yourself, so you can calm others.
Reframe your negative thoughts by identifying cognitive distortions and using positive realism.
Name it to tame it.