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Sian: Lockdown anxiety and how to control it

We take a look at anxiety especially during the lockdown periods and how best to keep on top of it.

By Sian Barnard

Anxiety is an emotion that tells us we are under threat or in danger. Its part of our survival system and it is meant to be uncomfortable to spur us into action for self-preservation. (That’s why one of our biggest behaviours we demonstrate when we feel anxious is avoidance or to run).

In the past, we would have been more scared of predators and our enemies. Today our anxieties are usually about our predictions, thoughts, fear of being judged and anticipation about possible futures. We really don’t like uncertainty and that makes us catastrophise which is a way of focusing on the worst possible outcome believing it to be the most likely outcome when it’s not. The churning of these awful outcomes along with the phrases that begin with “what if …”  is called worry. Or I call it ‘whatifery’.

How many ways can we feel anxious at the moment, here are some common ones?

  • Existing anxieties (financial, OCD, social, health, phobias) are experienced with more intensity
  • Worrying about your future job and the effect a depressed economy could have on your earning potential
  • Anxiety about losing touch with people, they may not be your friends anymore
  • Anxiety about catching the virus or a loved one catching it
  • Anxiety about your civil liberties being taken away
  • You may feel you can’t live with the people you are locked down with
  • You may now just feel you’ve been in the house too long and that outside is generally scary or that interacting with people is too overwhelming
  • Worried about what happens after lockdown

Whichever one you are experiencing there are some general principles you can follow.

1. Put things into perspective. Exaggerating possible, but not likely, outcomes does not prevent them from happening, it doesn’t stop or solve anything. How likely is the virus to kill you? If we go back to March the government had us so scared, we were frightened to set foot outside the door. It depends on your age and underlying health conditions. If you are a healthy child, teenager, young adult it’s not likely to affect you anymore than flu or you may even have mild to no symptoms. The older you get the more chance (but not a guarantee) that you may have it more severely. 50- and 60-year olds can also experience no symptoms. Its worth noting that the average age of death from COVID-19 is 82 years of age. The life expectancy in the UK is 81.

If you are in an at-risk group and take all the precautions necessary if you have to go out. Therefore, by using masks, visors, distancing, taking vitamin D and keeping as much of a fit mind and body as possible you are reducing your risks significantly.  Don’t mix often with those that mix a lot. Even then if you get it is not a guaranteed death sentence, though you might be very poorly.

2. If you ask yourself questions that have no answer but that trigger your internal survival alarm like “what if we are locked down forever and the economy crashes and there is anarchy?”. Or “what if I lose my job?” then you will continually feel anxious as there is no answer to something that might not happen in the future from the present point in time such a now. Whatifery whatifery what a load of piffery – this is a silly but useful saying to alert you to your over thinking

3. Don’t try to control things out of your control. Ask yourself “what can I do something about and what can’t I? The economy, government, people who don’t adhere to rules. Remember no matter how loud you shout at the telly they won’t hear you.

4. Do the things that bring you happiness. It may be limited but identify them and engage in them. A soak in the bath, a movie, a walk , facetime or call friends. Remember when you’re feeling low talking and thinking about someone else is a good way of putting things in perspective and shifting the focus outwards. Anxiety is all about looking in.

5. Don’t watch the news! On TV or online. They present you with a doom and gloom world that you can’t do anything about. The headlines are designed to grab your attention by stimulating your fear and emotional centre. They are rarely absolute truths in and of themselves.

6. What you fear is diminished by facing it. You can do it all at once or in bite size chunks. This can be relevant for leaving the house, shopping or going back to work. This is because the amygdala, the organ in your brain responsible for anxiety and fear, can only learn not to be fearful of something by re-experiencing it and seeing that you didn’t come to harm. It learns. It changes its programming through emotion and experience. For example, that old story about getting back on the horse immediately after a fall. The fall may trigger a trauma, (an unresolved terror that repeats itself in a time-loop like it was happening in the present moment). You can’t tell the person to get over it as the loop doesn’t understand English. By getting back up on the horse ( which will be terrifying) the amygdala learns again that riding is more or less safe. To definitely cancel out any trauma by going out on the horse every day after the fall would make sure a new loop was written over any possible trauma ones.

7. If you need support seek it! Whether it’s with friends, family or a professional. Being alone in an anxious head without any help to get out of it can be hellish. Don’t let toxic thoughts be your only companion.

8. Be aware of your bodily sensations that occur during anxiety so you aren’t afraid of them. There will be a set of feelings that occur here are some common ones. Having these in an intense flash is known as a panic attack also known as full fight-or-flight.

  1. Heart racing/chest pain
  2. Shortness of breath and struggle to get breath
  3. Shoulder, neck and limb pain
  4. Nausea, acid reflux, heart burn, diarrhoea, constipation
  5. Sweating, shaking
  6. Brain fog/not feeling real or spaced out
  7. Insomnia
  8. Racing thoughts

9. Health anxiety can develop when the above symptoms are mistaken for something life-threatening due to the symptom being accompanied by the anxious/terror feeling. The brain puts two and two together and gets five. A lot of people end up in A&E believing they are having a heart attack. Or have repeated trips to the doctor believing they may have cancer. Checking the internet to self-diagnose is the absolute worst thing to do for increasing anxiety

10. Mindful meditation in particular is pretty good for accepting and dealing with anxiety. When you fight a thought or try and control one, you just feed them more energy and they get stronger. Mindful meditation accepts they are there and then gently ignores them. They lose their potency and you can begin to feel calm.  Similarly, if you fight anxiety you also fuel it.

11. Hypnosis is a great technique for putting the body into rest-and-digest, the opposite to fight-or-flight. Hypnosis helps the body to repair damaged cells, the immune system is boosted, digestion and absorption of nutrients is optimized. This is what happens when we re alseep too. The heart rate slows down as does breathing and blood pressure. We are truly relaxed.


There is, of course, a lot more to anxiety than this. For specific help contact me directly. Each person will have individual anxieties or combinations of anxieties. The above tips might help you stop exacerbating them.

Watch out for my next article on what happens when low mood sets in.

Sian

Sian is a cognitive behaviour therapist and also a clinical hypnotherapist, having trained at Goldsmiths College, University of London and the College of Clinical Hypnosis. Four years ago Sian relocated her Harley Street practice to her native North East after 26 years in central London. Sian now runs her private clinic in Gosforth and also owns a training academy to help organisations with stress reduction. Sian’s approach is to help people become their own therapists, whether they come to see her for panic attacks, depression or OCD (she covers a wide range of emotional and behavioural issues).

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