During the current climate with everything going on around us, it can be difficult to keep on top of our daily routines and maintain a positive mental attitude. But there is no shame in realising that at times you might need some advice on how to handle certain situations and maybe some tips on how to manage and control them. Will is a partner at Spill, which is a startup that allows employees to be put in touch with qualified therapists via video-chat. Here are his 5 tips to help reduce isolation anxiety.
Author: Will Allen-Mersh, Partner at Spill, a startup that lets employees video-chat with qualified therapists.
(1) Stay informed, but be mindful of how — and how often — you get your news
When we're feeling anxious, it's easy to think that the best option is to simply avoid the news altogether. This can actually be counterproductive: without any information at all, anxiety can sometimes become worse, as our brains love to ruminate and speculate on what could be happening.
So maintaining a stream of information is important. What we need to be mindful of is the quantity and quality of that information.
First of all, quantity. We recommend time-boxing your news intake to once or twice a day, and trying to do it after any emotionally important events — like a big work call or playing with your kids — rather than beforehand.
Secondly, quality. Consuming news stories that focus on speculating about the future or sensationalising events can trigger anxiety and make it worse. We recommend finding a dispassionate quantitative news source that updates a few metrics daily, like the number of COVID cases and deaths, such as the ECDC or BBC charts.
(2) Trick your brain into feeling more in control than it really is
Anxiety is exacerbated when we feel like things are really out of our control. During lockdown, it's easier than ever to focus on all the things on a macro level that we can't control: everything in the lighter blue circle above, including whether our planned holidays later this year will be cancelled, when and how the government restrictions will be softened, and far more. Ruminating on these things just gives more oxygen to the feeling of being out of control.
Although it can feel like little is in our control at the moment, and that we're trapped inside with less agency than ever, if we bring our attention down to the micro level it's possible to see there's a lot we can control.
Some of us working from home have more control over our daily schedules than we did before: we can get up a bit later as we don't have a commute, and might have more flexibility with our work hours. We can decide what we cook, when we go for a walk, what exercise we do... The closer you look, the more you see that we have decision-making power over. And by focusing artificially closely on these things, it helps guard our brains when they start to think about the bigger things we can't control.
(3) Use meditation to shorten your time horizons
Anxiety loves to make our minds ruminate about the future: the endless possibility of what will happen in a few weeks or a few months. Meditation and mindfulness are great ways to force your brain away from the future and back towards the present moment.
There are a bunch of great meditation tools and apps out there, but all you really need is a chair and five minutes of your time to get started. A simple exercise like the one pictured above ('5 things') helps to stop your mind wandering and getting distracted, and brings your focus back towards the body and senses.
After checking the news or talking to a friend, we often find our minds are distracted and that we can't help thinking about the future. Meditation helps to ensure you're fully engaged in the present moment, allowing you to be more focused on whatever task you're about to do, whether that's work, childcare or an activity.
(4) Find activities that get you into the state of flow
One thing anxiety loves is an empty mind. Anything you can do to stay busy in your free time during social distancing is great, but anything you can do that gets you into the psychological state of flow is even better. Flow is when you lose all sense of time because you're totally engrossed in an activity that's just the right balance of difficult enough to be interesting, but achievable enough to not be demotivating. Video game designers spend their whole lives trying to make sure players stay in flow throughout all the levels of a game.
Lots of activities can get us into flow: hobbies, exercise, work, childcare, volunteering. There are so many courses, tutorials and opportunities available on the Internet right now for free. You can learn the piano, learn to code, or even take a negotiation course. Or, if you're more of a real-life-activity person, there are a bunch of volunteering opportunities organised by location.
(5) Take solace in the worries of others
Anxiety is often worse when we feel like we're going through it alone; that our worries are uniquely ours and that we can't be understood. Speaking out about your anxiety to the people around you can often help you feel less alone, with others often experiencing similar things or being able to empathise from past experience. Suffering in silence only makes it worse.
And right now, more than ever, there are so many people around the world struggling with things like guilt, uncertainty, panic and fear. These are strange times, and a lot of us are scared. We may not be able to control the wider situation, but we can seek solace in each other, and in the shared human experience. Sharing our worries makes us feel closer to each other.
There's a great online project called COVID diaries, pictured above. It allows anyone around the world to leave a 2-minute audio recording about their experiences and worries during lockdown. What becomes quickly evident is that, no matter where in the world we are or what kind of life we're living, many of our worries are very similar. And there's a deep sense of togetherness in that knowledge that may help ease our minds slightly, if only for a bit.