I didn’t realize that anxiety was contagious until recently. It seems obvious in retrospect, as the shelves in my grocery store remain empty of toilet paper, bread and water from the spreading global virus that is COVID-19. I can remember a month ago when folks at work started reporting that the toilet paper was gone. I thought they were nuts. I heard rumblings of stores being out of items. I said to myself: “Oh, that’s their store, I’m sure my store has it.” Once I ventured into my store with a full grocery list and slid past the toilet paper aisle (I didn’t need any and sure enough, it was empty). Somehow, suddenly, I was panicked. Mind you, I had at least twelve rolls of TP at home, plenty for at least two weeks. But there I was scared into scarcity mode. I had caught the anxiety contagion. I realized it was irrational. I had paper towels, tissues, and as my boyfriend Roy previously suggested, thousands of leaves on the ground outside. Why was I caught by the grips of this anxiety?
It was about two weeks later, after stores started rationing each customer to one toilet paper package per visit, that I was finally able to purchase one package. I had no idea if I needed it, but there I was throwing a package into my cart. Better safe than sorry. I recently saw a story on CBS Sunday Morning about toilet paper and the reporter said that people want control and by having a stockpile of one item, it’s one less thing to have to worry about. So, there it is. I have a gift of true love. Acts of love amid COVID-19 are not flowers, not chocolate, not champagne…it’s a 24 pack of 2 ply Charmin.
Here are 8 ways to minimize the anxiety contagion:
- Soothe with sensations. Sit out in the sun. Make a hot cup of tea. Take a warm bath. Cuddle up in your favorite down comforter. Take a long hot shower. Listen to Barber’s Adagio for Strings (thanks, Susan!) or Echo in the Canyon Soundtrack (thanks, Sandy and Seth) or The Intouchables Soundtrack (thanks, Natalie!). Put your bare feet on the grass. Light a scented candle. Watch Sunrise Earth (sunrises from around the world in real time) on YouTube. Rub your forefinger and thumb together with so much attention you feel the ridges of your finger print. Listen to the birds’ songs or the wind speaking through the branches of the trees. Using your senses dampens anxiety.
- Stop checking the news. It’s all the same stuff packaged in short teaser bites to keep you glued to the channel. By the time you read this, I assume the apex will be past us, which will only increase the speculation about when we will get back to “normal.” The news just increases your cortisol level, which is likely the result of and feeds your anxiety. I’m not saying to ignore what’s going on in the world, just be sure to pick the time, the source and limit your exposure. I view the news like radiation. I should only expose myself in small doses. Stopping the news minimizes the contagion of anxiety.
- Curate your sources. I have to say that I appreciate that many news sources online have made their resources free during the pandemic. Find a trusted source like the CDC website or covid19.healthdata.org and check it at a designated time. Be sure to know the latest mandates for your area before you head to the store for groceries. I check my state’s department of health and human services website. Be careful listening to friends and coworkers, I’ve heard that the virus could live on metal anywhere from 1 hour to 2 weeks. Make sure you trust your sources.
- Get outside! (if you are able). Do whatever is possible under your current conditions. As Dr. Zoffness wrote for Psychology Today, “Research shows that nature – trees, birdsong, sun, sky – improves mood, lowers stress and anxiety, reduces blood pressure, and improves an overall sense of well-being. Stand outside in the sun and breathe fresh air.” I have really missed the ability to take a hike in the state park near my home but even walking to the mailbox or for 2 miles in my neighborhood has made me feel so much better. I try and use all my senses (see #1) to take it all in. The cardinals, the blue jays, blue birds, robins, mallards and cormorants are plentiful right now and I so appreciate their presence. Nature has its own language that it shares with us.
- Get a mindfulness practice. There are dozens of apps offering free trials or free versions. Give a few a try. I personally recommend Headspace and Calm, but find the one that works for you. My friend Susannah has free yoga classes online available here. I have personally used the meditation I learned at the Art of Living’s Happiness Program and they now offer that class virtually. Zoffness recommends doing the class twice a day, which is an excellent idea. If you take an anti-anxiety pill twice a day, why wouldn’t you take a mindfulness break twice a day?
- Keep or establish a daily schedule. I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits last year. He suggests that one way to add a new habit is to stack it with an old one. So, if you want to add a mindfulness habit, maybe you fit it in as you brew your coffee in the morning. I have about 10 habits that are all stacked with each other that I do every morning. During these uncertain times, even on the weekend, I always do the same morning ritual and I find it to be grounding. Keep your schedule.
- Maintain social connection. The worst thing you can do is be socially isolated. As Dr. Zoffness wrote,”We’re genetically wired to need each other for food, shelter, and protection against predators. This is never as true as it is during a crisis. In the presence of others, your brain releases chemicals like serotonin (which raises mood), dopamine (confers feelings of pleasure and reward), and endorphins – your natural pain-killers. So even if you’re avoiding group gatherings, make sure to keep in close touch with friends and family. Figure out FaceTime, Skype or Zoom. There are free versions available. Try to reach out and connect either by phone or video.
- Make sure you move. You may be quarantined in your home, a dorm room or hotel room. Take an online yoga class (see #5) or sign up for Zumba class online. Every business in the world is trying to figure out how to be virtual–take advantage of it. As Dr. Zoffness posited, “Our bodies are built to move, and we need exercise to stay healthy and sane. When we exercise, our brains produce important neurochemicals that regulate mood, like serotonin, and our bodies eat up stress hormones like cortisol. This makes exercise particularly important in times of high stress. Go for a run or walk outside in the sun someplace remote.” Try to move at least once a day.
Eight different things sound like a lot but what’s important is that you can do two, three or four at once. Maybe you take a walk every morning outside with your partner (you just did #1, #4, #6, #7 & #8). I feel like this is all about us flattening the curve for anxiety. We all need to do our part to get through this the best we can and be the best we can. What can you do to slow the anxiety contagion?