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From the experts: How to cope with anxiety

Lauren Leathers

March 25, 2020

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We asked some of our faculty and graduate students in the UGA Mary Frances Early College of Education to share their tips for coping with anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The professors and researchers who were interviewed for this article include Alan E. Stewart, a weather and climate psychology professor in the department of counseling and human development services; Ed Delgado-Romero, the associate dean for faculty and staff services and director of Clinica In La'Kech; Rebekah Ingram Estevez, a doctoral candidate in the department of educational psychology and student clinician at Mercy Health Center; and Maritza Y. Duran, a doctoral candidate in the department of counseling and human development services and a student clinician at Grady Hospital.

Based on their expertise, they have provided the following tips for coping with anxiety:

Focus on what you can control

With university and school classes suspended or moving online and more and more people working from home, people can maintain a sense of control during these uncertain times by focusing on their daily routines. Instead of focusing on losses (canceled trips and/or events) focus on positive opportunities, like projects that can be completed by working remotely or reading books that have been pushed to the side.

Set a new daily routine

How can people set a new daily routine? Experiment with different ways to “do the day” and find a routine that works; then, try to adhere to it.

Don’t over-consume news

If you’re consuming too much information at once and need to lessen anxiety, try to control the amount of news you’re watching or reading. A lot of people have opinions, and there is still so much that is unknown. Trust that whatever is important will be relayed to you in time. If constant updates about the virus, closures or the economy are stressful, find an alternative activity that will take your mind off of the news like reading, watching a fun video or revisiting a comforting movie. Our bodies are not meant to be completely stationary, and too much screen time can exacerbate anxiety.

Spend time with friends, family and pets

Although big gatherings should be avoided, you can still spend time with friends or family members who can provide and receive comfort—virtually. Video chats are a great option for checking on loved ones. If you have deeply held fears about the outcomes (now or later) of the coronavirus, share these concerns with trusted people, so they can serve as a source of reassurance and challenge fear-based beliefs. Creating a support system despite social distancing is important in handling and overcoming this situation and reminds us that we are not alone—this situation is a collective effort to stay healthy. Spending time with pets can also help soothe anxiety.

Practice self-care

If possible, try to make contact with the natural environment, whether that’s walking in your yard or sitting on a balcony (while practicing social distancing), as it’s important to get some vitamin D. The virus may have disrupted our daily school, work and social routines, but our natural surroundings remain the same, and this can be comforting. Additionally, cooking and eating healthy meals is one of several ways you can ensure your body and mind are equipped to handle anxiety.

Stay grounded by using your senses

If you’re starting to feel anxious, pause what you're doing. Notice and name three things you can see, smell, taste and hear. The pandemic is forcing society and individuals to tune in and be with themselves. This is an invitation to re-center and identify what activities and people in your life are essential in forming your happiness, health and overall wellbeing.

Focus on pressure, air, tension and heat (PATH)

Where do you feel pressure (where your feet touch the ground or where your hands touch your lap?); Where can you feel air (on your skin, face, or hair?); Where do you feel tension (in your shoulders or legs? See if you can allow these areas to relax and let go a bit); Where do you feel heat (notice the area around your chest, throat, and belly and imagine a warm, soothing energy moving through these areas).

Breathing exercises

When anxiety strikes, your breath becomes shallower, which may indicate that you're breathing from your chest instead of your belly. If this happens, take a few moments to sit comfortably. Place one hand on your belly and breath in to the count of four, feeling your belly expand like a balloon. Then, breathe out slowly, counting to four, feeling your belly relax like the air coming out of a balloon. Watch a video on this technique by psychologist Nicole LaPera.

Journal

Research shows that by writing down five things you're grateful for every day, you can rewire your brain for happiness. The things you write down can be small (like a cup of coffee) or big (like having a roof over your head) or anything in between.