As a therapist over the past year of lockdown I have listened to countless clients talk about “living with daily dread”. The uncomfortable feeling that ambushes them physically in their bodies with nightly teeth grinds, aches and pains, to churning, upset stomach and even irregular heart-beat patterns. The effects on their minds can turn inward with feelings of tension, nervousness, worry and anxiety. Ruminating over “what if” scenarios and imagining the worst of everything.
Yet life with anxiety was alive and thriving long before the pandemic.
Modern life has encouraged us to think of anxiety as a malady that needs a cure. However, anxiety is a natural human reaction and instinct that is a teacher to us all, and our ancestors, that danger lurks. So our body responds with a fight, flight or freeze response. The only difference is today we are less likely to be hunted and eaten by a dangerous wild animal. Our busy lives have just drowned out our ability to truly listen to our bodies and trust what they are telling us.
It has been a year of risks to our wellbeing Constant news streams have warned us against contact with other humans and the risks we face if we catch the virus. Habitually reading and hearing that there’s danger will naturally set off a mental alarm that shows up in our bodies as stress and anxiety.
Our brains are fertile grounds for fear of the unknown, so we engage in catastrophising, over-thinking hypothetical situations and going in spirals of negative self-talk. Many people live on this rollercoaster of anxious high alert. We have come to fear the anxiety response itself, instead of listening to what it is trying to tell us.
But we are all unique and experience anxiety and stress differently. Understanding how we can support ourselves to manage and live with our worries is the starting point, especially as we step back into the physical world.
Acknowledge your feelings
Just noticing how you feel can be a baby step. Try to name your emotions. There is no right or wrong here. Just labelling what you feel is a way to own that emotion and believe you have a right to feel this way. The important thing is not to quieten those feelings, but value them.
Recognise your stress triggers
Noticing who or what drains you in your life can be another brave and simple step to reducing your stress levels. It can then allow you to support yourself, to choose where to conserve your energies and find ways that work for you to refuel. How does stress show up in you?
Focus on what you can control
It can be tough to keep our mind on the things we want and off the things we don’t. A simple practice is to create two lists focused on ‘what you can control in your life’ matched with a ‘what you can’t control’. Notice the difference between areas that cause you ‘concern’ and those you can influence. What do you see?
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Create your next new life chapter
Our lives are like books. We have different chapters, some more interesting than others, some we’re more able to be open and honest about than others. Think of your personal chapter, as you move beyond lockdown. Consider what do you want in that chapter and how can you weave that into your day?
For many people, the pandemic offered space to evaluate what they value, stand for and want more of in their lives. Hence why so many now are gardeners, growing their own, and are living a simpler life. For others the most important thing to them is people, and their community.
Start by thinking what would go into your next chapter? Whether that’s just for a week or a month, think about what you want more of and how you can focus on keeping your mind on what you want and off what you don’t want. Remember the importance of going at your own pace and what feels safe for you.
Charley Gavigan is a Glasgow-based therapist and coach. She hosts the Brave Your Day mental health podcast with her husband Colin. She has also recently crafted a range of handmade Worry Dogs to support children, young people and worriers of all ages, to reduce anxiety, feel less afraid and increase safer methods to express their mental health.