As I’m writing this from my home office in Mill Bay, BC (about 40 minutes north of Victoria) it’s a high-anxiety and unprecedented time. I can hear my kids playing in the background, isolated from daycare. My wife is chatting on the phone with her Mom, isolated from work. Grandma can’t come over at the moment as we are keeping safe distance amidst the COVID-19 chaos. The co-working space, Kwench, where Rachel and I usually work, has had to close its doors for now.
Safe in our home with a stocked pantry, I can rationalize our safety, take inventory of our privilege, and control my anxiety. But I know that there are those who are suffering for the first time - the anxiety newbies of the world - who might need help.
For me, the pandemic has felt much the same as the anxiety I have experienced for many years - stemming from the other major ecological crisis that we all face.
When our defence mechanism is overwhelmed, our bodies start to follow suit.
Now I’m reading of others facing their anxieties with the pandemic and having their first taste of existential threat and vulnerability and I can predict the feelings that accompany this realization. The taste of stomach acid and heat in the throat. The difficulty controlling the breath. The irritability and sense of dread. The brain fog. And often, the overwhelming sense that things are spiraling out of control.
I understand how terrifying these feelings are and equally, how normal they are in a state of crisis. Humans have a highly sophisticated biological defense system that has evolved in our brains to address threats; you know, the whole chased by a tiger thing. For some of us the negativity bias is more pronounced. When our defence mechanism is overwhelmed, our bodies start to follow suit.
My Tool Kit
I never thought I’d say this, but today I feel fortunate to have spent many years developing a set of tools to handle my anxiety. So while the pandemic is now at the top of the list of things that cause me anxiety, I am able to meet it head on and navigate my feelings.
This doesn’t mean that I cruise through the day with a smile on my face. It means that I can quickly recognize when anxiety is creeping and take action before it escalates. For those experiencing these new emotions and physiological responses for the first time, I empathize and want to help. Here are my go-to techniques that have been in heavy use these past weeks.
Recognize and Record
Anxiety is a sneaky bastard. Unlike when we cut a finger or stub a toe, the physiological response can be deferred, and can feel unrelated to the trigger. I have learned that the first, and most important tool in navigating anxiety, is recognizing when you have it, which, by the way, took me years.
if we can get zeroed in on our anxiety signs, we can get to work and avoid many of the extreme symptoms.
The tricky part is that everyone experiences anxiety uniquely. This is why medical professionals have a devil of a time identifying it. So here is a very strange silver lining to the pandemic we are currently facing:
any unusual or uncomfortable sensations and feelings you are experiencing, or some that you have previously experienced but could not explain until now, are likely due to anxiety.
Write them down. Tattoo them on your brain. Become hyper-aware of them because anxiety is so sneaky it can be easy to let our guard down and ignore the signs. The challenge with anxiety is that in my experience it is cumulative, meaning it piles up towards an apex which for many, and for me, manifests as a panic attack. So if we can get zeroed in on our anxiety signs, we can get to work and avoid many of the extreme symptoms.
Take a few minutes over the next few days to document how yours show up. Make a list and keep it handy and then share it with those you love and with whom you interact so they can help you identify when it fools you.
The past weeks have been unnerving and have left most of us indoors and away from our physical networks. Craving social connection we pick up our phones and start scrolling. We message and read and go deep into the vortex of information. We pour over charts and read numbers and data. And it is important to be informed right now. But have you heard the birds singing today? Have you felt the sun or breeze on your face?
And I thought, “Ok. The sky is not falling.”
Yesterday I went outside and sat with my face in the sunshine. I let my mind release the thoughts swirling around my head and I focused on the sounds of nature. I heard robins singing their beautiful melodies as they gathered twigs for their nests. I basked in the sunshine and felt the warmth on my skin. I noticed the breeze brushing against my cheeks. And I thought, “Ok. The sky is not falling.”
Connecting with nature reminded me that while things are scary right now, life will go on. Nature was going about its business and spring wasn’t going to be deterred. The ability to find perspective in challenging times by being in nature can help to calm the mind and body and for me is often a tonic for anxiety.
I’m definitely not the first person to suggest mindfulness as an antidote to anxiety, and I won’t be the last. It’s because meditation is an incredibly powerful tool. But you may not fully understand why (I certainly didn’t).
The super power that is learned through meditation is actually not the ability to clear the mind, but rather the ability to identify thoughts and pop out of them. Once we are able to do this, we can apply this power in everyday life. So when our mind is fixated on something incredibly scary that is creating anxiety, we can recognize this thought, get curious about it, and eventually step out of it. This doesn’t mean the thoughts aren’t real, it means that they don’t have to be true. This is an important differentiation (you may want to read that again).
The reason not to meditate that I often hear from my friends and clients is that they aren’t good at it. We feel that we should be able to sit down with no guidance, get comfortable, close our eyes and “clear our minds.” Doing that is not only hard but impossible.
Get over your fear of being bad at meditating; we all are.
Like any new skill, meditation needs to be learned. Lucky for us, there has never been more guidance available. I use the Calm app (they aren’t paying us to recommend them although we would let them if they wanted to). I aim to sit at least once, if not twice a day. I find a guided-meditation for the first sit and usually go it alone for the second. What I love about using an app is that there are programs to teach you how to meditate so that you begin to understand what it is and why it is so beneficial to your life.
Get over your fear of being bad at meditating; we all are. Just get started so that you can learn how to pop out of your thoughts and take control of your anxiety.
Consume with Care
Right now there is a genuine need to have access to information. The guidelines are changing every day and we need to know how to protect ourselves, our families, and the vulnerable. Today’s media allows for the quick propagation of this crucial information. But the flip side to this is a readily accessible source of non-stop and often overwhelming information.
Try to harness the 80’s dad within
My friend Mitch and I were talking about how the news used to be something your dad read while you ate Cheerios or your parents listened to while they were making dinner. They got up to date and then moved on with their day. It’s all too easy today to get caught up hitting refresh and chasing news headlines. And it’s a recipe for anxiety, especially when most of those headlines are scary (news outlets lead with what bleeds). Further, as our negativity bias kicks in, we actually start to search for, and crave negative news.
Try to harness the 80’s dad within: pour yourself a cup of folgers and give yourself 30 minutes a day to engage with the media. Learn what you need to, and then take the information and move on with your day. If you find that the news is typically a trigger for your anxiety, be ready to take action after you’ve gotten your information. I like to read the news and then hit the trail.
I haven’t found a single thing that impacts my anxiety more effectively than exercise. Not only am I able to find a state of flow, but once the endorphins kick in, the stress hormones don’t stand a chance.
I think the key is to find the right movement for you. What activity lets you get lost? Where do you find a rhythm? For me a long run, hard hike, or a rip on my bike allows me to get into a quiet headspace. If I can push it far enough so that I start to really feel into my body, the distraction is even greater. You don’t need to be an athlete to get benefit from some movement. A walk around the block can be just what the doctor ordered. Nothing beats an impromptu family dance party.
Find your prefered method and avoid anything that makes you feel like you are being chased by a bear (which can trigger cortisol and exacerbate your anxiety).
The best way I can explain the correlation between my anxiety and depression is connection (or isolation). Here’s how it unfolds for me:
- Anxiety is something that I feel in my body that throws me off my game.
- These feelings lead to a sense of isolation as I feel that others don’t understand or feel my anxiety.
- Feeling alone makes me feel low.
The antidote for me is connecting with others - (have I mentioned that I co-founded a platform called Eco-Anxious Stories aimed at exactly this)? Hearing stories of how other people are coping with their anxieties helps to normalize our own. It makes us realize that our feelings make sense, are shared, and are normal. And it helps us to avoid feelings of isolation so that we don’t get depressed.
anxiety is a team sport; don't be alone with yours.
Over the coming weeks there will be a lot more time at home. Find an online group or platform: check out Eco-Anxious Stories or the Good Grief Network as examples. Reach out to a close friend or family member and open up: you’ll likely be shocked to learn how many of your friends and family are dealing with their own anxieties. Share your story: as you share, you will name your feelings and help to normalize them. And you will help others realize that their feelings are normal too.
The moral of the story: anxiety is a team sport; don't be alone with yours.
In no way do I want to minimize the seriousness of the pandemic or climate crisis. These threats are real and scary. Having anxiety about them makes it even harder to navigate and make decisions.
I am not a mental health or health expert. These tools are based on my experience navigating anxiety and I hope they can help you take action and find some calm in this storm.
Stay safe and take care of yourself and each other.