While “stay well” has become the default sign off in the age of coronavirus, “it is imperative to say ‘stay sane,’ too,” says the psychologist and author of Anxiety Attacks, Lucy Atcheson. As situations change faster than we can process, and we try to muddle through, here are some anxiety-busting coping strategies, whether you have one minute to spare or a yawning, self-isolating fortnight.
“Breathe yourself calm,” says the psychologist Linda Blair. “Inhale slowly through your nose, counting to three, hold your breath, and then breathe out for six counts.” Ten of those, she says, will reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and boost feelings of wellbeing. Atcheson recommends sitting or standing with your feet hip-width apart and inhaling, holding and exhaling for four counts each, breathing through your nose, especially if you’re feeling panicky, because “you cannot hyperventilate if you are breathing through your nose.”
“Learn a new word and use it,” says Blair. “Look at the word of the day on the Merriam-Webster website.” This simple act of self-improvement, she says, will make you feel more in control and confident about your ability to cope, “with a sense of, ‘Yes, I am moving forward,’” even though it is not consciously tied to the current health crisis. Equally, five minutes is plenty of time to try mindfulness meditation.
Starting small is best, says Karen Atkinson, the cofounder of MindfulnessUK and the chair of the British Association of Mindfulness-based Approaches. “It is like building your physical muscles; you start with low weight and reps, and then you build up.” Go outside, she suggests, and try a practice called ‘taking in the good,’ “which helps your psychological, emotional wellbeing. It is springtime, so if you notice a beautiful flower coming up, savor the moment, and let everything else drop away. Just be with the physical and emotional experience of looking at the flower, or a bird perhaps. It takes 20 seconds for a positive experience to be registered in your brain, so stopping and feeling the air on your skin, and using your senses to be present helps to calm down any anxiety.”
“Write a letter to yourself about all the good things you are doing and how well you are doing,” says Atcheson. The way to frame it, she says, is: “I’m going to write this letter to my best friend, who happens to be me, and I need to cheer them up.” That really challenges the critical voice [in your head], and a lot of anxiety comes from not having sufficient faith in our own abilities.” If letter-writing isn’t your thing, try a gratitude journal, as Blair describes: “Write down three things that you’re grateful for. You may think at the beginning: ‘I have not got anything.’ Oh, yes, you do. Spend 10 minutes to find three things. It makes you feel safe.”
Two words: power nap. “When we get anxious, we start thinking emotionally, and we don’t use our logic anymore,” says Blair. “The best way to regain perspective, and put logic back in the driving seat is to take a little break away from everything.” Lie down on the floor, on your back. Bend your knees and drop your hands to your side. Set your clock for 20 minutes or ask someone to tell you when the time is up. Close your eyes, says Blair, “and start the breathing that you did at one minute. And that is all you do.” You do not have to fall asleep, “but what happens is the thoughts that are running through your head neutralize. They are there, but they don’t have power.” At the end of 20 minutes, roll slowly on to your side, sit up, and then go back to whatever you were doing.
To avert the risk of being overcome with worry, it is essential to structure this time, so life still has purpose, meaning, and joy, says Atcheson. “It’s possible with books, box sets, an online exercise, trying a new recipe, talking to people whom we don’t normally have time to talk to.” Build-in healthy routines, starting each day with deep breathing, then exercise, and ending the day similarly – “not with high adrenaline exercise but yoga.”
Martin D Clark, the editor of OM magazine, recommends Yoga with Adriene on YouTube, and many teachers and studios are temporarily moving their classes live online, from Emma Tilley in Gloucestershire to Yoga at the Mill in Chelmsford. And remember the importance of microlifts – “small, almost imperceptible lifts throughout the day,” says Atcheson. “You may usually get one from grabbing coffee in your favorite cafe. Do something that makes you feel good for a moment.”
Numbing the brain with mindless social media scrolling, she says, can allow depression and despair to slip in. Blair advises getting a pot for your windowsill and planting some seeds. “Things such as mustard and cress are good,” she says, “because you’ll see things coming up in a couple of days. Furthermore, at the end of 15 days, you can eat them.”