With the world in the midst of a pandemic and everyone’s lives in limbo at the moment, we’re all struggling with uncertainty. Which, by default, means we’re all — to some extent — struggling with anxiety. It’s the feeling of fear about what’s to come.
Because with none of us ever having lived through a pandemic before, what’s to come is a complete mystery. So, for many of us, our bodies are reacting as if we’re in danger. We’re kicking into survival mode. Our stomachs are churning. Our minds are racing. We’re feeling irritable and having trouble sleeping.
So, what to do? While we outlined four easy things you can do for short-term anxiety relief here, if you’re looking for longer-term relief, you’ll want to handle the situation entirely differently.
If you’re wanting to change the habit of being anxious, the most effective thing you can do is to train your brain that the anxiety symptoms don’t matter, says psychologist Peter Baldwin of the Black Dog Institute.
“Next time they come along, see if you can commit to waiting five minutes before intervening with relaxation,” Baldwin suggests. “You can make this easier by giving your brain a funny name — my brain’s name is Gerald.
“Thank your brain (Gerald) for the warning, but advise it that you’re actually in the middle of something right now so you’ll talk to it later. Go about your day for five minutes and let those anxiety symptoms come and go. Set a timer if you like. Increase the amount of time when five minutes feels easy, and soon your brain will learn that it doesn’t need to sound the alarm so often.”
Though the anxiety symptoms can be uncomfortable and, if they happen out of the blue, can be concerning, they’re actually a sign that your brain is working well — even if it’s being unhelpful at that moment, explains Baldwin.
“The most important thing to keep in mind is that because the symptoms aren’t dangerous, you don’t need to do anything to stop them,” he says. “The whole system will calm itself when it’s ready.”
Of course, that said, again, if the symptoms are really unpleasant and are stopping you from doing the things you need to do, there are a few ways you can settle your nervous system down a bit — namely belly breathing.
“In the short term, belly breathing is a great way to calm down and get to know your nervous system,” says Baldwin. “Take five full breaths into your belly, imagining that you’re filling your abdomen with air. Breath in for a count of three and out for a count of three.
“This deep belly breathing can create some mild pressure on your vagus nervus, which is an important nerve for slowing your heart rate. If you practice it every day, you’ll be really good at it when anxiety comes along.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.