If there is an overwhelming theme in my practice lately with the majority of my clients it can be summed up in one word: ANXIETY. This is not a new topic that clients bring, but is greatly increased and compounded by the pandemic we’ve been facing during the past year. I have written other pieces on how to manage anxiety in general you might find helpful:
I’ve been doing my best to support and help clients navigate their anxiety during the pandemic. Now that we have a vaccine and there is hope that we will be returning to a ‘new normal’, I have been thinking a lot about how to help clients move back into the world as it opens up with as many tools to lower their anxiety as possible. I did some research and found a wonderful resource which speaks to this beautifully: the website called Anxiety Canada. I suggest you check out the whole site, but for the purposes of this article, I wanted to share with you a snippet of an article from that site called Returning to a New Normal: 12 Tips for Handling Uncertainty. I hope you find it as helpful as I did.
For a portion of people with anxiety, the experience of lockdown came as a bit of a relief and was associated with peace and quiet. The pressure to be out of the house and socializing was removed and some people with elevated anxiety were relieved to comply with government recommended avoidance. Now, those who were initially relieved may experience anticipatory anxiety.
Here are some guidelines and principles to follow as you gradually return to your daily routine:
Perhaps most importantly, continue to follow public health guidelines
Note that the degree and rate of reopening may vary across the country. Stay informed when restrictions are reinstated, depending on the course of the virus and its spread, and stay up to date as the availability of testing, treatments, and vaccines over time.
Make decisions in accordance with local public health guidelines and not your anxiety
As reopening continues, your public health authority may make suggestions that conflict with your internal sense of safety. Put your trust in your local public health officials. Although safety is almost never a guarantee, if your local public health officials have provided the guidelines, use them and not your internal feelings of fear of anxiety to tell you what you can and cannot do.
Remind yourself of the reasons to re-engage
Doing things that you have not done in a while will likely be anxiety provoking and difficult at times. Before you start or before you do something you know might be particularly difficult, it would be a good idea to remind yourself of what can be gained by doing the things that the anxious part of you is saying could be risky. Sources of motivation may include:
Modelling bravery for your kids
Being outside together as a family to build positive memories
Not letting anxiety push you into a corner
Identify what you fear could happen and challenge those fears before you start
The anxious part of your brain will say things like: “don’t do this, it could be risky,” “what if you make a fool of yourself,” “what if it’s dangerous,” “what if you contract the virus and bring it back to your family? You will be responsible for bringing it into the house and they will never forgive you.”
In response, identify the specific fears or thoughts you may experience and challenge them before you enter a situation so you can rely on your reasoned conclusion while you are in a potentially anxious spot.
Not everything that you avoid or are anticipating re-entering is equal in terms of difficulty. It is a good idea to start small – at a level that you are pretty sure you could do but haven’t yet tried. Give yourself a chance to succeed. Think of it a bit like the high jump; better to set the bar at a lower level and clear it by a long shot compared to setting high and running into it. If you set yourself up to succeed, it will build a sense of confidence and a desire to push forward.
Gradually work up to more difficult situations
Give yourself a chance to build on your success by gradually increasing the difficulty level.
For example: Slowly approach going to the grocery store at closer to peak times. Although it may be time consuming, it also may help you gather data to refute the anxiety-provoking predictions regarding the danger level of being out of the house.
Mix and match the situations that produce anxiety
Sometimes when people try to get past a fear, the situations in which they test it will be relatively narrow (e.g., only going out for walks between 6:00 and 7:00 in the evening). Although this is a decent first step and better than always staying inside, it doesn’t give you much information regarding the extent of the perceived threat.
To put yourself in a better position to gather information, it is a good idea to vary the situations (e.g., going out all times of day) and if possible, to combine situations that make you anxious (e.g., taking the elevator from the parking garage with a person who is not a member of your family [if the posted signs allow for it] to get to the grocery store where you had planned to shop).
Like any fear, the more often you confront it, the quicker you will reach a place of comfort with it.
For example: Imagine two people who have the same fear (e.g., walking by people on the street because of a concern that they might get the virus). One person goes out once a day for 15 minutes and the other person goes out once a week for 15 minutes. The first person will have gotten much more experience and gathered much more data that would help them to refute their anxiety provoking predictions compared to the second person.
Debrief yourself after doing something that makes you anxious
After you finish doing something that scares you, compare what actually happened to what you feared could happen. In some cases, you may not be able to do this debrief with yourself until several days later. For example, if you make a prediction that going outside and walking on the street and passing others will make you sick, compare it to what actually happened but recognize that it might take up to two weeks to get an answer. In other situations, you may be able to do a debrief immediately after completing a scary activity.
For example, if you go outside with a mask on and make a prediction that people will point, stare and ridicule you for wearing a mask, you will be able to immediately debrief with yourself, comparing your prediction to the actual outcome. Hopefully over time you will collect a number of experiences that may demonstrate that you are overestimating the threat/danger, which may help the next situations to not seem so scary.
Don’t negate your success
The anxious part of your brain has a job – to keep you safe from danger. Of course, if we always listened to this part of our brains, we would not have a happy or productive life because too much time would be spent expecting danger and trying to keep safe. If you gradually approach anxiety-provoking situations and have success, expect that the anxious part of your brain will try to take away from the success (e.g., “you got lucky”, “the people you passed today looked healthy.” “people felt sorry for me, which is why they didn’t get upset with me,” etc.).
Don’t let yourself negate success. While it is true that initial forays out into the world after being locked away don’t provide definitive information on health and safety, own your success and understand that the more you do it, the more information you will have to make accurate estimations.
If something is more difficult than you expected, be compassionate with yourself and don’t give up
Moving past a fear is rarely all forward movement. The phrase, “two steps forward, one step back,” is a more accurate representation of what the work looks like when people try to overcome something they fear.
When (not if) you do have a moment(s) of difficulty around an anxiety-provoking exercise, give yourself some encouragement for doing something that is hard, and think about what you might tell a cherished friend. Hopefully, you would not be critical of that friend but rather lead with kindness while encouraging a regroup followed by another attempt. Remember, if you have not been successful with something, it’s an opportunity to learn from it so the next attempt has a greater likelihood of success.
Congratulate yourself for your hard work
Facing a fear is hard work. It does not matter if others don’t share your fear. We all have things that scare us and because of this, it is best for us to be our own yardstick. Compare within yourself. If you are working hard to overcome your fear, you deserve to congratulate yourself. Speed does not matter (remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare?). Also, don’t fall into the trap of congratulating yourself for a positive outcome. If you focus on the effort you are putting in and you are following the above guidelines, trust that the outcome you want will come. It may not be as quick as you would like, but it will come. The work of re-entering the world after an unprecedented months-long lockdown is work. If you are trying to overcome your fears, then you deserve to congratulate yourself for you hard work!