In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, VETgirl’s Chief Happiness Officer, Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, clinical veterinary social worker, discusses how to calm the anxious mind during the stress of COVID-19 coronavirus and the quarantine from this pandemic.
March 21, 2020
This blog post started as a general reminder about how to boost coping skills when facing uncertainty. In the past 24 hours, though, I’ve watched the public health crisis that is COVID-19 change dramatically in my local community, and I’ve been in touch with many colleagues who are also seeing alarming developments in their own cities and towns. We are all worried – and we should be. We are facing an unprecedented global crisis of physical, emotional, and financial health.
Here’s what I know about worry. Some folks are slower to jump on the worry train – and they may thrive on adrenaline. I think of my spouse in this way: he’s a retired fighter pilot and it takes A LOT to ruffle his feathers. ER practitioners, you likely fall into this camp, too. This doesn’t mean you don’t worry (none of us are immune). It just means that your brain probably processes information differently, so “calm and focused” is your default setting.
For others, though, worry is a fast-moving train with a default destination: catastrophe. I have family members and clients whose brains work in this way. For them, reasonable worry transforms into “black hole” more efficiently than almost any other process, and worry turns to panic in a snap. It is really, really tough to manage this type of energy, especially at a time like this.
Dear ones, you may find yourself at either end of this spectrum, or you may fall somewhere in between. What matters more than where you fall is what you do to manage your mind when it is trying to keep you safe in overwhelming times. Ultimately, this is what anxiety does: it is an emotion that is asking for action, and it can be fed by both higher-level data entering the neocortex as well as messaging from primitive brain structures signaling the presence of a threat. Knowing this, and counterbalancing negative effects, is the key to maintaining balance and safety. Here are some tips:
1. Limit media exposure, social and otherwise. The news is ultra-compelling these days, and it’s easy to get sucked in to the constant stream of information on the pandemic and its effects. There is such a thing as “too much.” Choose one or two sources of reliable information and check them just a few times per day. Information overload does nothing but fuel the worry circuits in our brain.
2. Focus on what you can control. Instead of stewing and brewing about all of the assorted moving parts, focus on the core behaviors you can put in place to protect yourself, your loved ones, your coworkers, and your neighbors.
3. …and related to #9, get a plan in place. Spend a little bit of focused thinking time on how you will handle potential disruptions to your work and personal life if you (or someone else in your household) gets sick. Line up resources before you need them, because implementing a plan is easier than constructing one when your head is on fire.
4. Limit your worry time. Worrying — while valid and understandable — can become a feedback loop that makes it difficult for us to think, rest and engage. If you catch yourself ruminating, set an alarm on your phone and then give in to that urge for a short period of time. When the alarm goes off, STOP and force yourself to engage in a task that allows your body to DO something benign but concrete. Sorting paperwork, doing dishes, or folding laundry usually work for me.
5. Maintain a core daily routine. Comfort comes from having some aspect of our day that doesn’t change. Routines make us feel rooted in something predictable, so make sure you find a way to stick to some part of “normal” – it will remind you and your family that some familiar things are still present.
6. Rest and self-soothe. In times of high anxiety, our brains can get locked into heightened awareness mode, making us feel both hyper-reactive and exhausted. Make time to allow your body-mind to rest, and encourage the process by relaxing your muscles, breathing deeply, and engaging in activities that are soothing.
7. Circle your wagons. Regardless of whether you are an introvert or extrovert, please remember that humans are wired to connect to one another – and it’s these connections that protect us the most during dangerous times. Social supports are hugely important and need to be maintained. Our virtual tools are critical at a time when physical connections are limited.
8. Avoid the urge to jump on the panic train. Panic is the brain’s attempt to mobilize all available energy in the interest of self-protection. The trouble is that panic usually gets in the way of clear thought and balanced decision-making. If you feel panic starting to build, give your body-mind some cues to take things down a notch or two: deep belly breathing, movement, and splashing your face with (or drinking) ice water can restore calm.
9. Laugh and play. Seriously. Humor is important and helps us to problem-solve.
10. Put yourself in the light. These are scary times… and they won’t last forever. Focus on the present moment, and practice gratitude for the good that is still present and true right now.