You’re not alone these days if you feel caught in a spiral of anxious thoughts. The global coronavirus pandemic has upended life for many of us.
In uncertain times, it's natural to feel jittery, but being consumed by stress and anxiety isn't good for your mental or physical health.
So the next time you feel anxious thoughts begin to creep in, try these 9 proven strategies to help you to cope.
When you talk with someone who is anxious, it can infect a part of your brain in a phenomenon known as social contagion. Social contagion can be harmful, triggering a physical response and anxiety (1).
The antidote for social contagion? Awareness. The instant you feel yourself getting anxious during a conversation, hit the pause button on your thoughts and evaluate them (1).
If, for example, an acquaintance is sharing her fears over her nephew who is quarantined in Italy, this is upsetting news for her, certainly. As you empathize, you can process this news with the understanding it has no direct impact on you or your loved ones — and isn’t a cause for you to worry. In one study of physicians, those who used an app to combat social contagion saw their anxiety drop by 57% (1).
Activities that get you up and moving can make you feel happier and more relaxed. Physical activity triggers the production of endorphins, the natural mood-boosting chemicals in your brain. It also lowers the amount of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline (2, 3, 4, 5).
You don't need a lot of exercise to reap the benefits. Even 5 minutes of aerobic exercise can provide anxiety-busting benefits. Many fitness studios and gyms are offering online workouts, and workout apps are offering pricing specials while everyone is hunkering down (2, 3, 4, 5).
Head to the local park if you need a mood boost. Getting outside in nature, of course while maintaining social distancing guidance, helps calm your nerves, reduces anxiety, and even encourages prosocial behaviors, like generosity and empathy (6).
Research also shows that a 90-minute walk in nature can quiet activity in the part of your brain linked to negative rumination. If you can’t get outside, even looking at a natural scene outside your window can improve your mood (6).
Take breaks from watching the news or scrolling through the latest coronavirus headlines on social media. Although it’s good to remain informed, a torrent of pandemic-related news is not only unnecessary, it’s upsetting (7).
One therapist coined a term for the jitters caused by constantly watching bad news: “headline stress disorder.” He found that repeatedly watching upsetting news triggered feelings of anxiety and stress in his clients. Women in the study were more prone than men to suffer from the disorder, although it’s not clear why (7).
Consider turning off news notifications on your phone. Pick a few times a day to check in on the news to stay up to date while minimizing undue stress (7).
Talk with friends and loved ones about your concerns and how you’re feeling. One study found that for women in particular, spending time with friends and children helps release oxytocin, a natural stress reliever. According to researchers, this "tend-and-befriend” effect is the opposite of our innate fight-or-flight response (8).
Granted, there’s a lot these days that's outside our control, but try to concentrate on what you can influence. This is called perceived control, and practicing it can reduce stress (5).
For example, you could focus on thoroughly washing your hands, cooking healthy meals, or taking a 20-minute walk each day. As you perform these activities, don’t aim for perfection, which is impossible. Instead, give yourself credit for what you’ve managed to accomplish in the midst of this crisis (5).
With so many staying at home now, you may find yourself with more free time than usual. Try devoting some of this time to an enjoyable pursuit or hobby (9).
Research shows that people with hobbies are less likely to experience stress and depression. When surveyed, 4 out of 5 people felt less stressed after spending time on their hobby (9).
Keeping your feelings pent up inside isn’t good for your health, and that's particularly true in times of uncertainty like the coronavirus pandemic. Look for healthy avenues to express your thoughts and emotions (4, 5).
Journaling, for example, can help relieve stress and anxiety. Journaling also can help improve your mood by giving you an outlet to identify and prioritize your fears and concerns. The practice also helps to create a sense of order when the world feels uncertain (10).
Writing in a journal can also be an avenue to practice gratitude. Consider making note of positive occurrences during the day that made you feel happy or less stressed (10).
As humans, we’re hardwired to project into the future. But dwelling on what-if scenarios can be an unnecessary source of stress and anxiety, and that’s especially true in times of uncertainty (11).
When you find yourself worrying about something in the future, gently bring yourself back to the present moment. Notice the sounds, sights, and other sensory experiences around you and name them (11).
Try a mindfulness exercise like taking a few deep breaths to calm your nerves in the moment. Research shows that practicing mindfulness can relieve stress and reduce the amount of time spent brooding. The technique also can help boost your concentration and give you a feeling of calm (11, 12).
The world can feel chaotic right now. If you find that your anxiety is interfering with your day-to-day life, work, or relationships despite your best efforts, consider reaching out to a therapist or other mental health professional. Taking your mental health seriously is now more important than ever.
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