Dealing with uncertainty can be challenging in the best of times, and we are facing some especially difficult times. The COVID-19 pandemic has many people concerned for their personal health, the wellbeing of their family members, their short and long-term financial security and a myriad of other anxiety producing worries. As these worries mount, they have the potential to paralyze us and prevent us from living rich and meaningful lives. These worries and anxieties try to convince us that the future is bleak and our options in the present have been completely stripped away from us.
In the words of Viktor Frankl, the famous Holocaust survivor and Author, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Although, we didn’t choose the circumstances we now find ourselves in, we can choose our response to these circumstances and as we choose well, we can build lives filled with connection, meaning, growth and joy. Here are four tips that can help you to make this shift in response.
As we experience worry and distress, our body’s fight or flight response kicks in to try to protect us from a perceived threat. This can be extremely useful if the threat is a wild animal that you need to fight off or run away from, but you can’t really fight or run away from COVID-19. And to make matters worse, this natural response causes a shift in the brain that makes it challenging to think things through logically. Instead, your brain naturally assumes that imagines the worst case scenarios so that you can be prepared for them. Again, this is useful if you need to deal with a wild animal, but it’s kind of an endless rabbit hole when it comes to COVID-19.
Fortunately, simple breathing strategies can help us to shift from the body’s fight or flight response to the rest and digest response. The rest and digest response state also is associated with clearer thinking and the ability to respond to a situation purposefully rather than automatically out of a need to survive.
A simple strategy for mindful breathing that I use is 4-2-6 breathing. It involves four seconds of inhaling into your diaphragm (through your nose if you’re able), holding the breath for 2 seconds and exhaling for 6 seconds (like you’re breathing out through a straw). This approach draws your attention away from worries through the counting, and slows down the physiological response of the body through slow intentional breathing. Practice it often and set up reminders in your physical environment to help you to develop the habit of slowing the body down.
Often associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr can offer some poignant guidance for these troubling times for all individuals religious or not.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
Many of us struggle with the order of this in times of difficulty. We hyper-focus on the things we cannot change, ignore the things we can, and don’t take enough time to discern the difference. A great deal of relief from anxiety and stress can come from adjusting our focus away from the things that we cannot control, and toward the things we can control.
A simple strategy to differentiate between things we can control and things we cannot is to take a sheet of paper and draw a straight line down the middle. At the top of the left hand column write “Things I can control” and at the top of the right hand column write “Things I can’t control”. Then list as many things as you can possibly think of that are important to your daily life to list in the “Things you can control”. As worries naturally float into your mind, ask yourself, “is this something I can really control?” and write it in the appropriate column.
As we follow the mandate to socially isolate in order to flatten the curve of COVID-19, we may start to feel lonely, isolated or “stir-crazy”. It is important to find ways to connect with those around us in ways that are safe. Fortunately, we live in an age when technology has made the world smaller than ever and has made connection with friends and loved ones easier than ever before. Video chat apps such as FaceTime, Skype and others can help us to feel connected when we aren’t able to be with each other in person. There are even apps like Rave that allow you to watch Netflix or Youtube videos with friends, and loved ones remotely. Be creative! Instead of focusing on the isolation, see what new and interesting ways we can connect that allow us to be more caring of one another, not less.
Similarly, staying at home with our families can feel a bit overwhelming if you have kids that are no longer in school and craving attention and entertainment. Though it can feel like a tall order at times, this can be an incredible opportunity to build amazing relationships with family members that we may never have otherwise had the opportunity to build.
When we work a muscle, it initially breaks down, but ultimately it grows. We go to the gym and intentionally stress muscle groups, rest them, grow them, rinse and repeat. Our collective experience with COVID-19 has the capacity to provide us with an immense opportunity for personal and communal growth, but growth requires that we have something to work towards and we take care of ourselves along the way. If you find yourself with more time during this pandemic, do some reflecting and discussing with loved ones to see how you can continue developing yourself during this challenging time.
There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that exercise is closely linked with positive outcomes for anxiety, depression and stress. As such, I would suggest that a regular exercise regimen be part of our individual growth. Going for a brisk walk, doing at home yoga, or some other at-home workout program are all great options, but the key is to find something that you can maintain and that gets you moving.
Although we don’t know exactly how long social distancing measures will be in place, or what things will look like when they are lifted, I am confident that as we respond with purpose to this challenging circumstance, we can experience personal growth, increased connection with loved ones, and ultimately joy.
If you find that your anxiety regarding COVID-19 or other things in your life is more than you can manage on your own, feel free to reach out to me or one of the other excellent mental health providers in the Airdrie area. In order to support the social distancing mandate we are providing web and phone counselling services. We are also providing substantially reduced fees for those whose income has been negatively impacted by COVID-19 (contact for more information). We hope that in challenging times we can come together as a community and support one another.
For information on what you can do to stay calm but remain appropriately vigilant, visit