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7 Ways to Manage Anxiety in Uncertain Times

These evidence-based techniques will help you find calm right now.

by James Napoli
November 6, 2020 | Health
Illustration of Woman at home scared and anxious watching TV and following the news reports of coronavirus issues, Rewire, manage anxiety
Credit: Antonio Rodriguez // Adobe

We're all on edge these days.

Between the pandemic, economic instability, a hyper-polarized political situation, and the ongoing effects of climate change, our lives are increasingly fraught with uncertainty.

It's hard not to be filled with existential dread when faced with such massive threats to our health, livelihood and future. 

But feeling anxious right now is, in fact, a perfectly normal human response.

"Anxiety is a really important, healthy emotion. It's a communication signal that there's danger in our environment," said Bethany Teachman, professor of psychology and director of clinical training at the University of Virginia.

"We want to get that signal because it allows us to think about how to mobilize resources to manage the threat."

Anxiety becomes problematic, however, when those healthy signals turn into constant false alarms.

"When anxiety disrupts your daily routine — when you experience an incessant, nagging sense of dread and it feels like you have no control over it — that is a clear indicator that something is off," said New York-based psychotherapist Ric Mathews

A variety of cognitive and physiological symptoms could indicate that you're experiencing an unhealthy level of anxiety.

"Mental components of anxiety include out of control fear, difficulty concentrating, and worried thoughts that interfere with your ability to sleep," said Inger Burnett-Zeigler, clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University. 

"Physical symptoms include headaches, tension in the body, stomachaches, shortness of breath, racing of heart."

Left unchecked, anxiety can take a toll on your physical and mental health, from wearing down vital organs to negatively impacting your work and relationships to increasing the possibility of substance abuse.

If you've been feeling especially anxious lately, here are a few evidence-based tools and techniques to help you cope with the stress of our highly uncertain times.

1. Take time to disconnect

One of the best ways to alleviate our anxiety is to be intentional in our consumption of news and social media.

"When we are constantly doomscrolling, it feels like a never-ending cycle of terror, bad news and painful stories. It puts us in a state of constant perception of threat," Teachman said.

"We need to take a break and engage in regular life activities, as much as possible, to have a sense of normalcy to help us get through these difficult times."

This doesn't mean completely avoiding the news, but limiting our time online instead of incessantly refreshing our feeds.

"We need to disconnect from the things that trigger us and make us anxious, in order for us to connect back to ourselves," Mathews said.

2. Practice self-care

After unplugging, Mathews suggests replacing that screentime with self-care routines.

"That could include yoga, meditation, going outside for walks, working out or calling a friend that you haven't spoken to in a while and agreeing not to talk about politics," he said.

In addition to these practices, some of Mathews' personal favorites include lighting tobacco-scented candles and listening to a Sade playlist. The important thing, he notes, is figuring out a self-care routine that works for you.

Teachman also recommends healthy eating, making sure you get enough sleep, and connecting with your social support system.

"Because of COVID, we may not be able to get together physically, but that doesn't mean we can't reach out and have those connections," she said. 

"It's so much easier to manage when we feel like we're in it together."

3. Ground yourself through the senses

Anxiety generally involves excessive worrying about the future and imagining a worst-case scenario or extremely negative outcome that may, in reality, never come to pass. The challenge is to bring focus back to the present and to the things which are immediately within our control.

One technique Mathews uses to accomplish this is the grounding exercise of sensory activation.

"When you notice yourself stuck in 'what-if' thinking, look around the room you're in and try to notice something you've never noticed before," he said.

"That could be a color, an object, a smell, a sound, a taste, the temperature on your skin. In looking for something you haven't noticed before, it immediately brings you back into the present."

According to Mathews, these kinds of mindfulness techniques will help bring you back into your body — and out of the cycle of anxiety.

4. Breathe deep

Another grounding exercise that can help to immediately reduce stress is intentional breathing. 

"When you recognize anxiety showing up in your body, take time to be still and slow down your breath," Burnett-Zeigler said. "That will help you regain a sense of calm and ease in your physical space."

Continuous line drawing of man sitting in yoga pose near cloud, Rewire, manage anxiety
"We need to disconnect from the things that make us anxious, in order to connect back to ourselves," Mathews said.  |  Credit: Pronick // Adobe

Mathews recommends taking note of your breathing and slowly working to increase the duration and depth of inhalations and exhalations.

"Noticing your breath immediately triggers a calming response. Once you notice the count of your breath, start to slowly increase the count by one," he said.

"If you're in an anxious state, your breath might be inhale at two, exhale at two. Try to get it to a count of three, then four."

The idea is to get back to a state of normal breathing, but you can also continue to work on slowing down your breathing for even more pronounced relaxation.

"Eventually, you can pay attention to the pause in between the breath and the pause after the breath," Mathews said. "And if you can notice the space between the breaths, then you're really going into the early stages of meditation."

Remember that breathing exercises may not work for everyone. For some, trying to control the breath may lead to greater anxiety over whether they're doing the exercise correctly. 

5. Show compassion for yourself and others

With everything going on in the world right now, we're just not going to be as productive as we usually are. And neither are our friends, family and colleagues.

"That doesn't mean we give in entirely to distress and curl up in a ball in bed," Teachman said. "It means that we recognize that we're not going to be entirely at our best, and that we don't judge ourselves or other people for that."

Keeping a sense of compassion for yourself and others during this extremely stressful time is critical.

"I'm trying to take it easier on myself," Burnett-Zeigler said. "If I'm feeling tired one day and my head's just not in the game, I'll allow myself some grace to do what I can when I can, and pick it back up the next day."

6. Take advantage of free and low-cost resources

Not everyone has the financial means and ability to access professional therapy and counseling. Luckily, there are plenty of free and low-cost resources available that can help you cope with anxiety during this time.

Mathews recommends researching online group therapy and free support groups in your local community. With the transition to remote therapy during the pandemic, he says there are more free and low-cost options than ever. There is also greater demand, however, so know that it may take extra time if you want to find individual therapy.

With all of the online options and mental health apps, Teachman says it can be tricky to know which to choose. She recommends the website Psyberguide for reviews and help with finding the right resources for you. She also suggests The Mindtrails Project and the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, where you can find information on therapists in your area and many other resources.

7. Reframe your thinking and embrace uncertainty

A powerful tool for managing anxiety is reframing the way you think about uncertainty and acknowledging what is actually within your control at the present moment.

"Uncertainty means we don't know — it doesn't mean the worst outcome will happen. What we need to do is learn how to tolerate uncertainty, and have the patience to sit with that without assuming the worst outcomes," Teachman said. 

"That makes a real difference in stopping the catastrophic spiral when we assign threatening meanings without real information."

Teachman also suggests taking time to recognize the power of human resilience and our ability to use our resources to deal with many of the challenges that come our way.

"We can't control all aspects of the outcomes, but there will still be steps we can take to try to manage that situation," she said. "And that allows us to feel sad, which is appropriate, but not paralyzed when we're getting tough outcomes."

Mathews recommends that we acknowledge, despite the onslaught of bad news and the division we may be feeling in the country right now, our shared sense of community and belonging.

"I think it's important that we remind ourselves that we really truly are one. And despite what might be presented to us in the media, we need to remind ourselves that that doesn't have to be the reality that we live in," he said.

"We get to choose the narrative and we get to dictate our experience if we focus on the things that matter to us."

Portrait of shaggy-haired local man with arms folded, wearing a cap, in front of pine trees
James Napoli, a former editor at Rewire, is a freelance writer, photographer and radio producer. Find him on Twitter @jamesnapoIi or Instagram @james.napoli.
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