Focus on the Basics
One of my favorite mentors in the counseling world shared with me that when life is overwhelming, it’s important to focus on the basics. It’s ok to actually make this your sole focus sometimes. Focus on getting enough sleep and rest, eating an adequate and healthy enough amount of food, and getting a little exercise. This recommendation may or may not include focusing on how you will meal plan, on what time your bedtime needs to be, and how you will create a relaxing space to sleep. Focusing on basics could also include how to get in, at minimum, a 10-minute walk, even if just inside your house while watching a show.
Getting in the Moment/Day
Grounding in the present can be very helpful. Statement’s like these can help, “I have enough to eat today, myself/my family is safe and well today, I can take care of my needs today, etc.” Finding gratitude in what we have today can bring tremendous comfort to many. We know that all we really have is the present time in this day. Take a minute to tell yourself, (for the past) “that already happened and it’s done, now I can focus on my needs for healing” or (for the future) “we aren’t there yet, I can think of that as I get closer”. My mom used to have a great saying, “is it happening today, because if it’s not happening today, I don’t have to worry about it yet”.
Conscious Denial/Finding Joy in Memories and/or Joy in Future Hope
This might be one of the only times I recommend channeling human denial for helping with present day anxieties. When things are very overwhelming, either remembering happy times that came before OR imagining what life will be like in a positive way on the other side of the current conditions can be helpful. In studying the enneagram and working with people, we are oriented to time differently. Some of us find comfort in the past, some find comfort in the future, and for some people the present is where it’s at. Think about what works for you. If pulling out an old photo album to remember a joyful time helps you then do that, get lost in the good memories. If envisioning the good that can come out of present-day circumstances or a return to normal is helpful, then move into that daydreaming or envisioning. The trick is to keep this tool hopeful and comforting.
Remembering What is in our Control and What is Not
It’s good to remind ourselves that things like a global pandemic are out of our control. Other people’s reactions and responses are out of our control. What is in our control includes our responses and reactions. Choosing the tools that work to help calm us and support us is something that is in our control. It helps to sometimes state out loud to another person, or to ourselves, “that is out of my control”. I sometimes make a list of what is in my control and what is outside of my control and start working on the things in my control.
Set Limits on Anxiety Stimulating Sources (news, situations, etc.)
I am a data driven person. I look at the data sometimes without much interpretation. For example, the news might be giving out scary information regarding the flu, yet the data shows statistically cases are decreasing. There may be times the news is not saying much about the flu, but I want to make sure it’s not rampant, and so that if it is, I can protect myself as much as possible by avoiding crowded areas and taking other precautions.
It’s ok to say “this source will be my only source for today” or “I will only watch 2 hours of news today (which might be way too much for some people). Listen to yourself and set your own appropriate limits for your well-being. It’s ok to set concrete limits. Please be kind to yourself if you don’t follow them exactly. Like the saying in the recovery world goes, progress not perfection!
Also, going outside and watching the clouds or the breeze blow through the trees might help. Changing the stimulus to soothing things in nature can definitely help.
Let Yourself Panic (for a little bit, with a ton of self-loving & self-compassionate thoughts)
One thing known is that when a panic attack reaches a certain point, we can’t stop it. At that point we have to ride it out. During a panic attack that is underway our bodies are responding to the threat. What we control in that moment is what we say to ourselves. I’m going to recommend some statements here.
“I am having a panic attack and I’ll be ok”.
“I’m going to be really kind to myself”.
“The reason I am afraid is _____, and I’m going to be compassionate towards that fear”
“Panic attacks only last on average 30 minutes, I’ll do _____ (deep breathing, listening to calming music, distracting myself with____, etc.) until it passes”.
“I know how to reach for the help I need, I’ll contact ________ to help me through this”.
We can turn the volume up on panic, or we can turn the volume down. Below are examples of how to do this.
“My heart is racing, I’m definitely having a medical crisis” would turn the volume up from a 5 to at least a 7.
“My heart is racing, I’m likely having a panic attack, this will last about 30 minutes, if my intuition tells me I need medical help, I’ll go ahead and call for medical help, meanwhile I’ll do some deep breathing and see if I pass through this in the next 30 minutes”.
Name Your Fears
Write down your fears and/or talk about your fears with a safe person. I love the example on the show This is Us when Beth and Randall tell each other their worst fears, they state the worst-case scenarios out loud with each other. Naming fears and talking about them helps them to lose their power and/or allows us to let in some compassion and support for them.
There are a lot of news sources and people that will emphasize the worst-case scenarios out there. Make a concerted effort to look for people and new sources offering solutions and reassurance. Sometimes it will be a mix. Sometimes the facts are scary, but keep listening for the hopeful messages, too, and especially the ways to receive and give help.
Finding what works for you
Take some time to google search terms like “stopping a panic attack” or “managing anxiety”. Look for meditations, yoga, guided relaxation techniques, helpful articles, apps on the phone, YouTube videos, and anything that helps you to manage your anxiety. Try out the techniques that appeal to you, or list 2 to try this week. I recommend the first one you focus on is tending to the basics.
I hope some, or all, of these tools can help you manage normal natural anxiety and overwhelm during this period of a global pandemic, or any overwhelmingly stressful time. Feel free to share other techniques that work well for you, too.
One question that I get a lot as a counselor, is how to best communicate about hard subjects. I hope this post will help.
What I typically tell clients is to move away from who is “right” and who is “wrong” and move more in the direction of expressing feelings, listening to the other person’s feelings, and negotiating needs attached to the feelings. My favorite book on this subject is Nonviolent Communication by Rosenburg. I truthfully tell my clients that if I could live my life according to the concepts in that book, I would have absolutely no problems with anyone. However, I add, that I am far too human for that. Still, when I want to get communication back on track, I rely on the methods I outline in this post.
I learned recently that Brene Brown, LCSW, uses the phrase below “the story I tell myself”. I have a confession to make that I have not read many books (including hers) since having children. Though I just got audible, so I look forward to adding her books to my list. I think so much good lingo has made it into the counseling world. So, if you know resources of hers for communication in the way listed below, I’d love to learn about those, too.
Most people have heard of “I” statements. Most people try to use them as a way to own our own thoughts instead of accusatory or judging “you” statements that frequently put people on the defensive. Typically, the format is “when you______, I feel _______.” While this is more useful than “you” statements, I have refined this into a formula I find works best, and provides room for even more healthy communication.
I observe (notice) ________(describe the situation)_______________________
And I feel (FEELING WORD) _________(angry, sad, bewildered, hopeless, etc.)______________
The story I tell myself is __________(the story you tell yourself about what is happening, allowing room for the reality that your perspective may not be the full story)______________
What I wish for is _______(describe your wishes about the situation)______________
I’ll give an example of this in use:
(scenario) A boss becomes frustrated with an employee for not getting a job done the way they were hoping in the time frame they were hoping for.
B (Boss): I don’t understand why when I assign projects to this team the job is never done like I ask, or on time!
E (Employee): I thought I was doing my best work, and I had some things come up that took precedent and thought you would understand and love the job I did!
Let’s explore unproductive inner beliefs that could develop around this:
B My employees don’t respect me, they don’t like me or try to do a good job for me, I’m so done with this stuff!
E No matter what I do my boss picks on me and can’t stand my work or our team, I’m so done with her micromanaging!
Now let’s use the formula to reframe it:
B I observe that I ask for a specific project to be done in a specific timeframe and that is rarely completed on time or in the way I ask for it. I feel frustrated. The story I tell myself is that I’m not respected in my position of leadership. I wish that I could have something I ask for done when I ask for it and I’m not sure how to get that to happen.
E I observe that you ask for projects to be done, but may not realize some of the other projects we are working on as a team can also require our focus, and that sometimes the timeframe seems too difficult to meet when we have other priorities that arise with those other projects. I also observe that I try to do my best, but it seems to fall short of what you hope for. I feel disheartened. The story I tell myself is that maybe you have an issue with me or the team, and that it is too hard to live up to your expectations. I wish that we could have more direct communication so that I’m even more clear about expectations and so that we can feel free to give feedback about the timeframe and work collaboratively around this.
Can you see where this could get worse in the first part, or where there is room for it to get better in the reframed model? This model can be used in all relationships and conflict to work towards a more productive discussion where people can express and try to meet each other’s needs and wishes.
Caveat: Sometimes there is a strong needs clash where it is unhealthy for one person to give into the needs of another. I frequently see this when family members have a strong sense of “blame” and the need is for the other person to “own all of the flaws and take all of the responsibility”. This dynamic is often labeled scapegoating and it’s important for the person scapegoated to be able to successfully say, “no, I cannot meet that need or wish for you, even if I care about you”. Healthy relationships sustain the ability for someone to say no, when it is unhealthy for them. It’s good practice to really learn to listen to our own feelings and articulate those for ourselves and our wishes/needs attached to them, and sometimes those needs are for space or time to let emotions settle, or a need to say “no” to a dynamic.