In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, VETgirl’s Chief Happiness Officer, Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, clinical veterinary social worker, discusses how we can manage anxiety in anxious times.
This is all too much. We’re months into a pandemic, juggling safety issues, increasing caseloads, working parenthood, virtual learning, and countless other competing demands. Everyone is crabby, overstressed, overstretched, and worried about what fresh hell is around the corner. There. I said it.
And now for the reality check: the anxiety that is bubbling up to the surface is asking for attention, too, and it will get in our way (and squirt out sideways via secondary emotions like frustration, anger, and helplessness) unless we manage it successfully. Management requires understanding both function and process.
Anxiety is related to the central emotion of fear, and fear arises whenever the brain senses potential danger (function). This is good, folks – feeling fearful is a sign that your brain doing its job in service to your safety. However, chronic anxiety is like fear running amok. Worrying constantly does little other than making us experts in worrying (process); worry becomes the default setting in the brain, which can hijack other cognitive processes and send our best skills – like discernment, decision making, and emotional management — off-line. How do we work with our fear and anxiety in a productive way? We can focus on self-regulation using these strategies:
Give anxiety an outlet. Move your body and raise your heart rate/respiratory rate for an intentional reason (exercise), not a fearful one (panic). Allow the body to discharge pent up energy so that it can also remember how to calm down.
Download it. We all need trustworthy sources of support who can hear us and hold our most difficult truths without judging, fixing, or giving unwanted feedback. Identify these “witnesses” and call them when you just need to download the things that are freaking you out. They don’t need to do anything but listen with compassion – because we all need to be seen and heard.
Breathe. Learn to use your breath tactically to calm yourself down and get your neocortex online. Inhale through the nose to the count of four; hold that breath for two counts, and then exhale through pursed lips to the count of six, as if you are exhaling through a straw and wringing out the lungs like a towel. Repeat this process until you feel a shift to relaxation and softness your body. Your breath is a pause button that reminds your body (and brain) that feeling grounded is possible.
Focus on what you can control. Stay in your lane, do what you can, and resist the urge to fret about the countless things you can’t predict or control. Also stop doing other people’s work, physical, emotional, and otherwise. Boundaries are critical to managing your anxiety and your energy.
Curb screen time and doom-scrolling. Limit your exposure to social media and the news cycle. Your brain doesn’t need more “data” when it is already overwhelmed. It is possible to stay informed without flooding ourselves with bad news and constant social comparison.
Check your stories. Ask yourself, “do I have enough information to freak out?” Follow with, “will freaking out help me manage this?” Also, useful: “How much of what I’m telling myself is
accurate?” If you can’t answer these questions on your own, process them with one of your witnesses. Once you check your stories, you can start problem-solving in earnest, which will enhance your sense of agency and control.
Limit worry time. Give yourself 10 minutes to worry about a problem inside out and upside down. Treat it like an Olympic sport. When those 10 minutes are up, STOP IT. Shift your attention to something neutral, positive, or meaningful for at least 10 minutes, which will give your brain a break.
Consume quality fuel. Refined sugar and caffeine are not your friend when it comes to anxiety, folks – they are stimulants that act like lighter fuel on a fire. And when we’ve consumed them all day and finally need to rest, what do we do? We reach for depressants (as in, “Hi, Cabernet! How nice to see you again!”). Being aware of this all-too-common cycle is the first step toward interrupting it and making healthier choices. Do better for your body and brain. Treat these substances like treats instead of the foundation of your anxiety diet.
Overall, the key to reducing the grip of anxiety is learning how to mobilize our biology to work for us, not against us. Anxiety can be useful when it directs our problem-solving and planning in a clear, focused way. But anxiety can be a fickle ally, and we can slide from positive to negative returns the moment anxiety takes the wheel of the bus. Listen to what your worry is telling you, and remember to keep it in the back seat.