How to work with an anxious mind
In any situation, your mind can help or hurt you.
What we say to ourselves can determine how we feel and experience an event — maybe even more than the actual event. Our brains and bodies are connected, like on a wiring loop, so our brains can help our physical feelings and our physical health contributes to our mental health.
So to help us all get through these difficult times during this pandemic – let’s go back to basics:
Firstly, what can anxiety feel like?
-Muscle tension or aches and pains.
-Restlessness and an inability to relax.
-Feeling easily fatigued.
How to cope with your worries and anxiety?
Please remember nature has set your brain’s default button to survival.
Worrying can be helpful or unhelpful, and psychologists often distinguish between worries concerning ‘real problems’ vs ‘hypothetical problems’.
Real problems – worries and anxieties are about actual problems that need solutions right now. For example, given the very real concern about COVID-19 at the moment, there are helpful solutions which include regular handwashing, social distancing, and physical isolation if you have symptoms or been in contacted with a person who has.
Hypothetical worries – worries about the current health crisis might include thinking about worst-case scenarios (what we might call catastrophising). For example, imagining worst case scenarios such as vast amounts of people, you’re loved ones or you dying.
People who often catastrophise may find counselling particularly helpful in learning to control or overcoming this problem.
The following can help calm our minds and preserve our mental health through this — or any — trying time.
Control What You Can
Our brains are wired to want certainty and feel happy, but life does feel a little out of control right now. So it’s important to focus your mind and efforts on what you can control in your environment. Sometimes, the only thing you can control is you — your mind and behaviour. Just doing this can really help.
Limit Your Media
Ensure the information you are reading is from a reliable source, this may mean ignoring some news feeds, social media etc. While it is good to stay informed, the non-stop news coverage and social media chatter about COVID-19 feeds anxiety as much as it informs and eases fear.
Balance is key, there’s a fine line between staying informed and feeling overwhelmed by the news and conflicting information.
Research shows that in the case of past natural disasters or terrorist events, as people’s media exposure increases, so does distress.
Educate yourself and learn the facts and recommendations, but don’t overwhelm yourself. Information is useful, but more is not always better. While you shouldn’t avoid the news entirely, it’s important to manage your exposure and give yourself a break from it completely once in a while.
Have a Routine
Establishing and following a new routine/timetable can be reassuring.
For example, if you’re telecommuting to school or work, set a daily schedule for yourself that allows for meals and breaks. Go to bed and get up at the same time as you normally would. Continue to allocate your evening hours per your normal routine exercising, relaxing etc. This gives your brain a sense of familiarity, which it will like!
While this is definitely a time of stress for many, it can also be a time of pulling together and showing kindness. It is what we make of it. Remember, we are all in this together, and the pandemic affects all of us. Having said that, look out for and help your neighbours, family, friends, and co-workers as you can and as is safe to do so. Helping others benefits your mental wellbeing. Again, it will give your brain a sense of control and cause it to release peaceful, happy neurochemicals.
When you find your mind getting anxious about all the uncertainties, bring your attention back into the present, a practice known as mindfulness. In this moment, realise that you are alright right now. It’s your thoughts creating a sense of danger. Bringing your awareness into the here and now calms your brain and lowers your adrenaline levels. Many studies show that with repetition, practicing mindfulness or meditation can lead to a long-term, lasting reduction of anxiety, low mood and worrying. I find the mindfulness practice called ‘grounding’ helpful and easy-to-do anywhere.
Work With Your Mind to Boost Your Immune System
At the start of this blog, I mentioned how your brain and body are connected. The thoughts that run through your head cause neurons to fire and neurochemicals to be released. What happens in your head can have a real effect on your body. Science has proven that many mental practices can actually boost your immune system.
Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health. It will decrease anxiety and stress and strengthen your immune system.
While you may want to avoid the gym or group exercise classes, for now, it’s a perfect time to go for a run, cycle or walk. Exercising outdoors and in nature like through the woods or green open spaces has been proven to help our brain realise our feel good hormone.
Try a new exercise video, some instructors are now holding some fantastic classes on YouTube.
All my clients who see me know that I always prescribe sunshine whenever possible. Doses of sunshine can boost your mental and physical health. The sun’s UV rays help your body make Vitamin D, which is important for your mood, bones, blood cells, and immune system. Natural sunlight helps your body set its circadian rhythms, which aids quality of sleep. Sunlight boosts the production of serotonin in your brain, which influences your mood and more of it can give you more energy and help keep you calm, positive, and focused. In the winter and spring when it’s still cold, try and expose as much skin as you can to the sun rays for at least 20-30 minutes a day; this could be just as simple as taking off your woolly hat and feeling the sun on your face and head.
Reading has multiple benefits for your brain and mental health. On a physical level, reading stimulates your brain, improves connectivity, function, and memory. It can even help you sleep better. Emotionally and mentally, science shows reading relieves stress.
Meditation and mindfulness is a way of thinking and calming our brains, look at it as a relaxing massage for our brains! It does take practice to get the ‘hang of it’ but your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing will truly thank you once you have mastered the art. Meditation has proven to not only improve your mental health but also improve your immune system.
Instead of focusing only on what is wrong and scary, try and write down or tell yourself what you are grateful for at the moment. Your brain doesn’t always automatically notice it. It can focus in on the bad. The benefits of gratitude are physical and mental. It changes the neurochemicals in your brain increasing happiness while decreasing cortisol and stress.
Every single aspect of your physical and mental health is affected by sleep — for better or worse. If you don’t get enough shut eye, it can escalate anxiety and depression. Physically, research shows that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick and not sleeping enough can prolong recovery too.
If you need some help managing your emotions, do not struggle on alone.
I can offer you a free 15 minute, no obligation telephone call to answer any questions you may have about anxiety and to see if I could help you.