Managing Your Anxiety during a Global Pandemic
It’s 25th March 2020, and much of the world is experiencing a mandatory period of self-isolation due to the outbreak of a flu virus. The streets look like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie, the TV is constantly bombarding us with new and strange information, and people can’t see friends or family for weeks on end.
First of all, let’s make this clear: it’s okay to feel anxious about all of this.
It’s a scary time, and worrying about it is completely normal. In fact – it’s healthy. Anxiety is an adaptive response which many animals, including humans, get to enable them to quickly react to potential threats. An anxiety disorder is when humans feel excessively anxious even when there is no threat, but right now, there is an honest and legitimate threat to our health out there, and we are taking drastic measures to contain ourselves from it. So to feel some concern is, of course, appropriate.
Anxiety is an unpleasant experience. We want to get away from it, to reduce it in any way we can. That’s the point of it – to motivate us to escape or protect ourselves from danger. We take steps to cope in some way. In today’s world, the ways we go about this can either help us, or harm us. For example, anxiety might remind us to wash our hands before and after preparing food – this is a good thing. Anxiety might also tell us to scroll through the coronavirus hashtags on Twitter for hours at a time, waiting for new information to pop up, and that can prevent us from attending to important tasks, self-care needs, or wind up in a vicious cycle of worsening fear.
This highlights the importance of checking in frequently, and then dealing with what we find. At CheckPoint, we call this the “AAA Model” and it’s a type of mental health routine we teach to game developers. Here’s an overview:
This means doing a mental and physical check in. The point of this check-in is to see how you are feeling right now, in your mind, body and soul – not to do anything about it, but just to find out.
Ways you could do this:
- Do a body scan. Focus on each area of your body, one after the other. Fingers, hands, arms, chest, tummy, and so on. Describe the sensations in each area and be mindful that you could have tightness or pains you weren’t even aware of.
- Think about thoughts. Listen to what your mind is telling you – is it a rambling sentence going over the same things again and again? Or is it blank and frozen? Perhaps you’re a hyper logical person and you are thinking things through rationally. Write down some sentences that come to you and take note of their tone and emotionality.
- Visualise your emotions. Sometimes we can be feeling things deep inside that we’re not conscious of. When we stop to pay attention to them, they come to the surface. You could try visualising your “inner feelings” as a place or a colour, then go from there to give it labels.
This article is all about anxiety, which is a variable thing that can range from a normal response to a psychological disorder. You can learn a lot more about anxiety in our dedicated information page, or in this video from The CheckPoint Series:
Signs you could be feeling particularly anxious right now:
In your body
- Shallow breaths and a fast heart rate.
- Tightness in your tummy.
- Panic symptoms, like tingling, dizziness, breathlessness and palpitations.
In your thoughts
- Racing thoughts.
- Worrying about the same topics repeatedly.
- Worrying excessively about things you have no control over.
In your emotions
So you went through the steps in Analyse and realised you are experiencing an anxiety response. That’s okay!
In the next step of the AAA model, we Accept what we are feeling and thinking – whatever it is – without judgement. This is part of mindfulness, an ancient Buddhist practise that stands on three pillars:
- On purpose
- In the present moment
- Without judgement.
What this means is allowing the feelings to just be. Let them flow through you and around you, accepting them for the natural response that they are – something that your body is doing automatically to try to help (even if it isn’t helping right now). This might be hard for people who are particularly hard on themselves, or in a state of high distress, but it’s really important to be able to proceed to the next step where we do something to improve the situation. You don’t have to do a meditation, but it can help!
The third part of the AAA cycle is to act on what you have found, to make a positive change and implement strategies to improve your mood and wellbeing in the moment.
When it comes to managing this anxiety, we all will have different tools available to us. As well as general management techniques we talk about in our anxiety video, like therapy and medication, here are some specific tips you might find useful during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Breathe Yourself Back to Normal
The sensation of anxiety in our body is self-sustaining. When we are taking short, shallow breaths, it actually affects movement of oxygen and carbon dioxide which can make us feel tense and even dizzy or unwell.
Try to take deep breaths in, and long breaths out, for around 30 seconds. Counting in for 4 and out for 7 works well. This can reset the gas levels in your blood and has the added bonus of reducing our heart rate, taking the body out of its “fight or flight” mode.
You could also try our Mindful Breathing Exercise, narrated by games voice actor Jennifer Hale.
Go Outside and Stretch
We know you can’t go far, but a short walk or even just some time on the balcony can do wonders. Vitamin D from the sun naturally improves mood, as well as the fresh air, and the cognitive benefits of exercise. Try to schedule in one walk and one “outside drink” a day, such as your morning tea or an afternoon glass of water.
Return to the Here and Now
It’s easy to get swept away in worry about what’s going to happen. You might feel helpless, or even hopeless. When we feel lost in our anxiety it can be very difficult to focus on the present – but really, that’s all we can change, from one moment to the next.
A grounding exercise can get you back to the now. We have some Video Game-Themed Grounding Exercises you can try any time!
Once you feel like you’re more grounded, you can focus on achieving small, digestible tasks. Try something you’ve been putting off. The feeling of accomplishment can do great things for your sense of agency, giving you the sensation of being back in control.
Challenge Your Negative Cognitions
During episodes of anxiety, the way we even think about the world can become distorted. In essence, our brain plays tricks on us. Learning how to analyse our thought patterns and challenge them to be more healthy and productive is an incredible skill.
Write down some of your thoughts and see if you’re doing any “distorting” – are you catastrophising about the worst possible thing that could happen? Or making all/nothing statements about yourself or the world around you? Do you use words like “should”, “must”, and “can’t” a lot? These are automatic negative thoughts, and with practise we can change them to make them feel more realistic and less daunting. This in turn changes how we feel in ourselves.
The 3-Step Thinking Hack Pack has detailed information about how to do this, as well as exercise sheets and examples.
Some people who have perfectionist brains tell themselves that using distraction is “cheating”. This couldn’t be further from the truth!
Distracting yourself is a hard skill. If you can take your mind away from what it’s ruminating on, and focus entirely on something else for a period of time, you can reduce so much of the cognitive and physiological effects of anxiety. Your body “resets” as it were. As long as it’s done for a reasonable amount of time (ie, enough to relax you, but not in excess) and whilst practising healthy habits, you can use distraction as many times a day as you need to get back to base.
There are some amazing video games which provide healthy escapism to assist with this. Try a story-rich narrative game like God of War, or something that requires intense skill and concentration like Spelunky.
At CheckPoint, we dedicate ourselves to making free mental health resources you can use at any time. Here are some others you might find useful during a period of COVID-induced anxiety.
- CheckPoint’s Self Care Guide
- How to Own and Conquer Stress
- Using BreathLuv to Survive Anxiety
- The Digital Coping Companion: Pay What You Can