You’d think we’d be used to dealing with the pandemic by now — we’ve had close to a year of wearing masks, social distancing and on-and-off business closures. But a lot of us are more stressed and anxious than we were last spring.
“People are feeling like things haven’t changed. They’re supposed to be excited about the vaccine, but the isolation has gotten the worst of them,” Susan Bernstein, a licensed social worker in Connecticut and Massachusetts and an adjunct faculty member at Boston University, told TODAY. Here are some ways you can cope.
Start with the self-care basics
By now, you’ve probably heard these self-care tips, but here’s a quick refresher:
- Schedule your day. The structure of a daily routine can soothe anxiety and create a sense of control.
- Plan your meals. Answer “what’s for dinner?” ahead of time to eliminate that little bit of stress.
- Move your body. Stretch, take some deep breaths, try a few yoga poses and give your brain a chance to think of other things.
- Make time for the things you like to do. That could be reading, playing with a pet, cooking or anything that brings pleasure.
- Connect with your friends and family. “Know who to rely on, who to lean on, who’s going to listen, and who you can listen to as well,” Bernstein said.
Take your self-care to the next level
Try a technique called behavioral activation. Amanda Medley Raines, PhD, a clinical investigator with the Louisiana State University School of Medicine department of psychiatry and the New Orleans Veterans Affairs office, explained how it works to TODAY.
First, identify areas in your life that you value. That could be relationships, spirituality, education or work. Then, identify achievable activities that correspond to those areas. Finally, schedule time to do them.
For example, if you value being a present parent, your activity could be to read to your children before bed twice a week, or to spend one afternoon a week getting ice cream and talking about their day.
“You start with activities that are easier to accomplish when you’re stressed. If you set lofty goals and don’t accomplish them, that can perpetuate anxiety. Start with things that are easier, so you get a sense of mastery and increase your mood,” Medley Raines said. “It sounds so simple at its core, but when you’re anxious, overwhelmed or depressed, even small behavioral changes can do a lot,” she said.
Look for soothing strategies that include all five senses. Bernstein said she had an aunt who would decompress after work with an hour of needlepoint (touch) and a cup of tea (smell and taste) while watching Law & Order (sight and sound) with her dogs at her feet (more touch). “That was all the therapy she needed,” she said.
Write down what’s on your mind. “Any type of dumping your head of your concerns helps — from previous hurts to your grocery list to whose birthday is coming up,” Bernstein said.
It’s fine to have two journals — a private one you keep tucked away, and a portable one that you fill with coping strategies and reminders of things that soothe you — even pictures of kittens — that you can refer to when you’re feeling anxious.
What to do when anxiety leads to panic attacks
It can be hard to stop panic attacks once you’re in their grip. “You need to ride it out and understand it’s not going to kill you, but it’s going to be very uncomfortable,” Bernstein said.
As best as you can, allow people to help you. People who know you’re prone to anxiety attacks can remind you to try rescue breathing — inhale through your nose, hold your breath and count to five, and exhale through the mouth.
When you’re not panicking, you can learn how to help anxiety attacks be less frequent and less intense:
- Practice rescue breathing so you can turn to it more easily when you have an attack
- Try guided meditation or yoga
- Work on progressive muscle relaxation, like making a tight fist and opening it slowly
If you’re still struggling with anxiety, talk to a pro
Sometimes you need more than self-help. Medley Raines said, “If you’re not performing at work or school the way you should, if you’re not maintaining relationships or engaging in social activities, your anxiety and stress may be more problematic. I recommend seeking support from a psychologist or social worker.”