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Coping with anxiety

Posted on: Monday, 20th April 2020 by Diane Hassall, Independent Therapist

Diane is a therapist and registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. In this blog, she explains why you might be feeling especially anxious during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and how you can manage that anxiety, as well as demonstrating some ground techniques. 

What is anxiety?

Knowing you’re facing a potential cancer diagnosis or recovering from treatment is hard enough. Having appointments cancelled, treatment delayed and knowing screening programmes are being put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, is triggering severe anxiety in many women.

I don’t have cervical cancer. Thankfully, after treatment to remove abnormal cells years ago I’ve been fine. So, I can only imagine what you might be feeling. But what I do know is that what you’re feeling is perfectly normal. 

Anxiety is our mind and body's way of responding to danger. Adrenaline rushes into our bloodstream to enable us to run away or fight. And sometimes we freeze, paralysed by fear. This happens whether the danger is real, or whether we believe the danger is real but it isn’t. 

When fear is triggered your heart beats faster. Your breath might speed up. You might feel dizzy. Your stomach might churn, or you’ll feel sick. You might tremble or your hands might tingle. Worrying or frightening thoughts will highjack your mind, and you won’t be able to think clearly or rationally. Things can seem unreal and you might detach from those around you. This is what happens when adrenaline takes over your mind and body. And when the adrenaline has subsided, you might feel exhausted, shaky and weak.

There's no right or wrong way to feel, or manage anxiety

Most people feel anxious about Covid-19 and many are struggling to cope. We’re worried about our health, our loved ones’ health, paying the bills, losing our jobs. These are uncertain times for everyone. And you have these additional worries on top of everything else you’re facing.

I’m a counsellor and I’m see people’s emotions change from week to week, hour to hour right now. Mine do too.

The important thing is not to give yourself a hard time for dealing with things differently to others. You’re the one going through this, you’re entitled to your feelings. And you need to find your own ways of managing the anxiety you’re experiencing.

What can you do to feel calmer straight away?

You can’t just change your feelings. But you can work on changing your thoughts and how you react.

First up though, you need to feel calmer. There are many ways to ‘ground yourself’ – to counteract your body’s adrenaline response. Grounding techniques help you come back to the here and now and regain a sense of safety and control. Here are a few I like:

Focus on your breath

Bringing awareness to your breath really anchors you in the present moment. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on the cool air as you breathe in and the warmer air as you breathe out. Focus on your tummy expanding and contracting as you breathe in and out.

Count to five as you breathe in, hold your breath for a count of two, then breathe out for a count of five. You might also want to mentally say calming words as you breathe, like: 

  • “I’m breathing in calm”, “I’m safe”, or “I’m breathing in positive energy” 
  • “I’m breathing out fear,” or “I’m breathing out negativity”

You could try visualising colours  breathing in blue for calm and breathing out red as you release your anxiety.

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This is a really simple way of distracting you from your thoughts and bringing you back to the present:

  • Name 5 things you can see around you
  • Name 4 things you can feel (“chair on my back” or “feet on floor”)
  • Name 3 things you can hear right now (“fingers tapping on keyboard” or “the TV”)
  • Name 2 things you can smell right now (or 2 things you like the smell of)
  • Name 1 good thing about yourself

Mindful walking

Walk carefully, mindfully around the space you’re in. Mindful walking can be slow or quick. Your goal is to be fully present with each step you take it. 

Bring your attention to the actual sensations of walking. Notice how the heel, then the ball of your foot makes contact with the ground as you walk. Notice the bend in your knees, the flex in your toes, the shift in your weight with each step you take. When your attention wanders, bring it back to your walking. Centre yourself in your body and be present in the moment. Count ten steps, and ten more, and ten more, until you feel calmer. 

Reframing your thoughts

When you feel calmer you can start to challenge your fearful or negative thoughts. Ask yourself:  

  • What am I reacting to? 
  • What's the worst (and best) that could happen? What's most likely to happen? 
  • Am I getting things out of proportion? 
  • Am I underestimating my ability to cope? Visualise yourself coping in the situation you feel anxious about. 
  • Is this fact or opinion? What do I actually know and what is the story I’m telling myself based on my fears?
  • What advice would I give someone else in this situation? 
  • Is there another way of thinking about this? 
  • Just because I feel bad, doesn't mean things really are bad. 

If you don’t feel up to doing this straightaway, write down what you’re worried about in a notebook and put it away. Set aside a time later that day when you’ll allow yourself to worry. But in the meantime, focus on the here and now. 

Find ways to stay calm and feel better

Learning how to calm down and reframe your thoughts when you experience anxiety is great. But how can you stay calm and start to feel better emotionally? 

  • Be active – do whatever exercise you’re able to, and like! Move more – walk, practice yoga, dance, do some gardening. 
  • Slow down too – learn to meditate, listen to music, have a bath, read a book, watch your favourite film. Take time to nurture and nourish yourself.
  • Take notice – be mindful in all that you do. Be observant. Savour simple moments, like eating your lunch or having a shower. Look for everyday beauty. Be aware of your environment – even you are confined to your home right now. 
  • Connect – keep in touch with family and friends as best you can. Building connections will bring you comfort and support.

If your anxiety gets worse, you might want to talk to your doctor or a counsellor. Many counsellors are offering video or phone sessions, and a lot are reducing their fees as they know people may be struggling financially. There are also counselling charities, like Mind, that can help you find mental health support.

Find a counsellor registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy >

Try to remember that anxiety is temporary. It might not feel like it at the time but the overwhelming feelings will pass. Find grounding techniques that work for you. Reframe your thoughts. Be active. Be mindful. Slow down. 

More support

Remember, Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust is here for you too. Whether you need some emotional support from our Helpline volunteers on 0808 802 8000, need an answer from our Ask the Expert panel that would put your mind at ease, or want to connect with others on our Forum, our services are open.

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