We are currently living through unprecedented times. Paradoxically, as the world slows down, our minds might be on the run. When will this end? Where are we heading to? Experiencing the unknown may be unsettling for us. Yet, as in every crisis, there will be those better and worse off than we are. What can we do to stay calm and present so that we can be of help to others?
It has been heart-warming to see how many people have put themselves forward to help the most vurnerable of us. The retired doctors and nurses who returned to work, the many volunteers, people who help their elderly neighbours with day to day necessities and those who support small businesses by using their services online. There are so many ways we can help if only we look around at our own families, friends, and communities. Those who live alone may need our emotional support most. Getting in touch with them regularly may be the very thing that helps them cope with aloneness, low mood or even prevent depression.
Taking care of others starts from taking care of ourselves
Taking care of others, however, starts with taking care of ourselves. When we feel safe and looked after we might be more capable of extending a helping hand to another and share that feeling with them. So how can we practice self-care during this challenging times spent mainly in isolation?
Understnadable there can be great fears. Millions have been infected by covid-19. Feeling anxious for non health reasons is also common. Sudden change to your day routine, tensions in your relationships or a sense of aloneness during this uncertain time can all trigger anxiety. While we all experience anxiety to certain degree, the roots of anxiety will be different for everyone and depend on our personal histories and relationships.
We often tend to ward off anxiety by distracting ourselves. Focusing your mind periodically onto something else than the news can be helpful. Overload of negative news that often excludes a broader context of the situation may inflate anxiety levels. However, while distraction may help us manage anxiety by temporarily pushing it away from our consciousness, anxiety and the feelings that underpin it often accumulate and continue to exert influence on our wellbeing.
What is anxiety?
What exactly is anxiety? It is an affect experienced by all of us in different degrees. It can be recognized as an uncomfortable sensation felt more or less consciously on a bodily level. It can express itself as bodily tension, shortness of breath or in more severe instances, palpitations or insomnia. This disquieting affect signals to the person experiencing it that something is not quite right, that some danger awaits and that this needs our attention. Anxiety thus is similar to fear but the object of fear is not always known. Unless the feeling(s) that underpins anxiety are known and processed, anxiety tends to stay and sometimes may overwhelm us. An alternative to fighting anxiety or distracting ourselves from it is to embrace it, reflect on it and to manage it in a more mindful way.
Soothing anxiety and understanding its roots
So what can we do about it? During your day it is worth pausing and acknowledging how you feel in a given moment. If you feel anxious, notice where you experience anxiety in your body. It may be that your stomach feels tight. Notice it, feel it, and don’t bit yourself for it - be kind to yourself. The first step to mindfully manage anxiety is to slow down our physiological response to it. Find a quiet spot in your house, sit in stillness, without fidgeting, for a few minutes. Try to quiet and slow down your breath. Each time you breathe in, notice which part of your body is tensed and requires your attention. As you breathe out focus on that part and send the breath to it. This kind of practice can be likened to looking after a distressed baby. You pick up a baby and soothe their distress by holding them in your arms while observing them and trying to understand the source of their distress. Your anxiety is your baby, it is a vulnerable part of yourself that needs your attention, interest, and care.
When you feel soothed and more relaxed by this practice and the pace of your breath slows down, begin focusing your awareness on your mental formations. Continue breathing slowly. Notice your thoughts, inner judgments, attitudes, and feelings. Observe them but don’t judge them or push them away. For example, if you feel anger alongside a loving feeling towards someone, make note of both feelings without trying to push one away. Next, name the feelings either in your mind or write them down. It is so common for us to experience opposite feelings, which can feel unsettling. Too often we try to deny the existence of one affect in the attempt to simplify our psychic experience. However, our inner life and outer relationships are complex and our feelings reflect that complexity. Becoming aware of our complex feelings allows us to look at each carefully and to understand their co-existence and interrelationship.
Just by observing and naming our affects we might be able to get hold of our inner states and become familiar with them. What is familiar is less threatening and thus less anxiety provoking. And what is named can be made sense of. During the process of becoming acquainted with our feelings we learn to accept or bear them. And this can bring a lot of relief.