We want to use our psychological knowledge to help as many people as we can during the current global health crisis.

In this new series of short blogs we will be giving you some top tips to cope and carry on, as well as bringing you innovative ideas, links to interesting content and highlights of what others are doing to stay safe, sane and supported.

Managing anxiety

Anxiety is an emotion that we all experience when we feel threatened and when our brains tell us something bad is happening. Anxiety is part of the fight/flight response which is our body’s way of preparing us to deal with the threat, whether this is to stand and fight, flee or freeze.

As we become more aware of the threat of Covid-19 and the impact it is already having on our everyday lives, our families, friends and communities, our anxiety levels are likely to be skyrocketing.

We have evolved to be vigilant for threat as this protects us from danger, enabling us to anticipate challenges and problem-solve to manage them. This vigilance is adaptive and helpful when used appropriately and in moderation.

But when we get hooked into hypervigilance, constantly looking at news and social media stories, or being on high alert for signs and symptoms, we end up feeling worse not better. Our perception of threat increases and so does our anxiety, leading us to take unhelpful coping measures that can make it harder for us to manage.

We’ve seen this in the news as people flee to remote areas or take a ‘fight’ approach by trying to carry on as normal. But these ways of coping can have unintended consequences for us and for other people. For many of us, we just feel frozen, unsure of what to do to cope.

So if we can’t change the situation, how can we change our reactions to it to manage anxiety in a crisis?

Manage arousal

In order to cope, the first thing we need to do is manage our sympathetic nervous system arousal. We can do this using the scientifically proven method of slow rhythmic breathing.

This technique helps to calm sympathetic nervous system arousal, regulates our heart rate, rebalances the oxygen and carbon dioxide in our bloodstream and starts to relax our bodies and our minds.

Although it seems simple, it can take some practice to learn.

The key to success is to teach ourselves to:

  • breathe out for longer than we breathe in
  • keep to a regular rhythm or ratio of in-breath to out-breath
  • pause briefly at the end of the out-breath.

You can try it now by breathing along with this video

If you find this ratio of in-breath to out-breath too difficult, reduce the length of both breaths. But make sure the out-breath remains longer.

Practicing for 5 minutes daily will help you get the hang of it. Soon, when you feel calm again you will be able to think more clearly, put any fears into perspective and find ways to solve the current difficulties you are facing.

Recognise and reduce unhelpful coping

We can help to prevent our anxiety escalating by recognising and reducing any unhelpful ways of coping that either maintain or worsen our threat response.

For example, reducing hypervigilance and other triggers. If you are spending lots of time looking at news stories or social media and it is overwhelming you, try to limit this. Perhaps allow yourself one update per day.

If you are using avoidance or numbing through gaming, drugs, alcohol, you may not be getting an accurate picture of the current crisis and what you can do. See if you can take a look at the facts of the situation we are dealing with, and know what you can do to keep yourself safe.

Take control

The current situation is in many ways uncontrollable, and this can make us feel uncertain, anxious or helpless.

But there are still things we can do. Try and identify which aspects of your life you can take control of and make a change for the better, whether you are under lockdown or still going into work.

There may be some simple steps that you can take to feel like you are back in charge, such as following advice on handwashing and social distancing, scheduling time to talk to friends and family, sharing funny pictures on social media or spending time playing with your kids.

Let go of unproductive worry. Write down your worries and once a day sort through them. For productive worries, or those situations you have some control over, try brainstorming solutions, talk to friends or your partner about what you can do. If the worry is unproductive, or about things that you can’t change or influence, throw it away.

Look for a silver lining

It is easy to think catastrophically when events are happening beyond our control. When we notice ourselves doing this it can help to take a moment to step back and reflect on what is right in our lives. Where are the opportunities? Perhaps you now have some time to spend in your garden, to take that mindfulness course, or learn a language.

Sometimes when things are really bad, it can help to remind ourselves that the situation will pass. We have seen from the situation in China, things have started to improve there. And they will here too.