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Strategies to cope with anxiety as daily life is turned upside down


March 25, 2020 | View PDF

It happened so fast. Our minds are reeling as we try to cope with a shocking new reality that upended the way we live our lives. But there are many small, manageable things we can do to keep from being overwhelmed by anxiety, fear, loneliness, loss and other difficult feelings.

“The first part is to begin to slowly accept reality, that this is, in fact, what’s going on,” said psychologist Dr. Marek Dvorak, who practices in Niwot. “You can feel some sense of freedom by acceptance. You don’t have to like it, but there is an acceptance.”

Once we accept the situation, we can recognize and validate the feelings that come with it. “It is quite natural to feel anxious and fearful. It’s OK to even be down or sad about it. It’s a loss and you’re allowed to grieve and be affected emotionally.”

Loss comes in many forms that we might not even consciously recognize as losses. Simple things like taking the kids to the playground, going to a birthday party, playing and watching sports, going out with friends, going to work and school, running to the grocery for that one necessary item, touching things, touching people, routine dentist appointments and a million other things we used to take for granted. Then there are the major life events that will never happen again like a graduation ceremony in front of a cheering crowd, family and friends.

It’s hard.

We run the risk of making things worse when we are out of our routine with more time alone. “When one is at home with the self-distancing you can really get trapped in your own head. You can engage in rumination, more extreme or catastrophic thinking. Your fantasies can run amok,” said Dvorak, who recommends people stick to the facts from legitimate sources rather than succumb to misinformation and sensationalism. And, if the news distresses you, limit your exposure to certain times of the day, and that’s it.

Creating new habits and adding structure to daily life is another way to calm a busy brain rocked by unknowns. “Many of us are creatures of habit. I think structure can be very reassuring. Tomorrow I get up at eight, have my cup of coffee, do my morning job,” said Dvorak. “There is some predictability and a feeling of control, even if it is small things.”

It’s also helpful to keep as much of your old routine as possible and not let things slide. Keep the house clean, don’t let yourself sleep until 1 p.m., stay on top of personal care, even when you aren’t seeing people in person. Continue to brush your hair, shower and shave or you can start to feel bad about yourself.

“It’s a sign you stopped caring about things that were once important. Then you start sliding on your motivation. There is a snowball effect into a potentially very negative place. It can be very hard to pick yourself back up. And then you ask, ‘What’s the point?’ When you start getting into those existential questions, you can develop clinical depression. You can see how it progresses.” said Dvorak.

Self-care is even more important when we’re under stress. Physical exercise, eating as healthy as possible, seeing the sun and meditating are proven ways to support mental health. Even a few deep breaths slow our heart rate. If possible, continue to do the things you love, even if you have to modify them because of social distancing.

Staying safely away from people is one thing. Withdrawal is another. Dvorak warns against becoming isolated. “You need to be talking to people,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of us are social beings. Staying connected over the phone or whatever way we can be in communication with others is critical. It gives us a sense of camaraderie, belonging, togetherness.”

Connecting with others is important for our own health and it can make all the difference for others when we let them know we’re thinking about them. Even a quick text or email is helpful.

It’s a touchstone in an uncertain world.

“The important thing to remember is, at some point, this will end. Humans will survive this. We don’t know the cost, the toll or how long. But we will move through this and regain our previous way of living even if some ways may be changed a bit,” said Dvorak. “Hope is an important thing to have, but being hopeful in a healthy way. Not false hope, but a good, rounded sense of hope and optimism.”


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