Decreasing Anxiety in Stressful Times

I never knew what anxiety felt like until this week. I thought maybe I was having a heart episode when I began feeling a tightening in the chest and a little trouble getting my breath. Then it hit me: this was no heart attack; this was the anxiety I had heard friends discuss. I was on the precipice of a panic attack.

It began Monday with a visit to my brother. David is intellectually disabled and lives in a care facility in Henryetta, about an hour’s drive from my house. His home was within hours of going into lockdown mode, so I wanted to squeeze in one more visit. Who knows how long it will be until I see him again?

We had a great time together, picnicking in a deserted park, and driving around talking. I tried to explain the Coronavirus situation to my brother, but he doesn’t understand, and maybe it’s just as well he doesn’t. My brother lives in a home where he is very well cared for by a loving staff that has become family. He has a roommate who is his friend and also looks out for him. He has full-time nursing care, so I have no doubts they are providing care superior to what I could provide.

Yet because of his vulnerability to respiratory issues, I also know he would most probably die if he were to have the Coronavirus. Knowing it might be months before I see him again, I cried all the way home. The cycle of negative thoughts began.

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No, I did not practice social distancing with my brother.

I started self-isolating as soon as I returned from visiting my brother. Being home alone gave me way too much time to think, and for me, thinking seems to be synonymous with worrying. In addition to my concern about my brother, I also began worrying about my daughters, who both work in close contact with the public. My imagination started going wild, developing a full movie script in my head of Armageddon, a Zombie invasion, and the Black Plague – everything horrible you can imagine was running non-stop in my brain.

After a couple of days of this, I knew I had to find a way (short of unhealthy self-medicating) to better deal with the stress. I missed my routines and my social interactions much more than I thought I would. I needed structure and a new normal while I’m “sheltering in place.” I sat down and made a list of strategies I thought would work for me; maybe it will help you also.

1. Exercise

Exercise is a great stress reliever! My old routine was rolling out of bed and heading to the YMCA. I’m now beginning my day with a walk on my treadmill at home, or if the weather is amenable, a walk or bike ride outside. Three weeks ago, I was beginning the training for an Ironman, and now I am using exercise as a way to handle stress. Priorities have rapidly changed. Move every day for at least twenty minutes. It’s good for your body, and it’s good for your mental health.

2. Food

This is where I struggle. My go-to for any emotional upheaval is baking cookies, brownies, or cupcakes. For me, there is something therapeutic in the process of mixing the ingredients together, creating a delicious treat, and inhaling the tempting aroma. But then I eat them and feel worse.

On the second day of my isolation, I baked peanut butter cookies and ate myself into a stupor. That solo sugar binge did not help my rampant destructive thoughts, but it did make me resolve to eat healthier. I’m not saying I won’t still have an occasional treat, but I learned sugar is not the answer to my problems. A lesson I’ve learned about a million times and will most probably have to learn a million more times.

a plate of healthy food

After I recovered from my sugar coma, I made vegetarian chicken, riced cauliflower, and roasted Brussel sprouts. I felt much better.

3. Productivity

This isn’t true for everyone, but I found out I need to stay busy, to accomplish something each day. Each night, I am making a list of what I want to work on the next day. So far, I’ve cleaned out a cabinet, organized my closet, and worked on a new book about grandparents. My house is enough of a mess to keep me busy; I could spend a month on home projects and still have more to do.

4. Limit the news

I need to be aware of what is going on, but I do NOT need to immerse myself in the shocking bath of sadness, crisis, and stress. It adds to my feelings of hopelessness, gloom and doom. Who needs that?

5. Limit social media

It didn’t take a genius to realize social media was feeding my frenzy of anxiety. It’s a quandary because I am also missing my friends and social interaction. I always thought I leaned towards being an introvert, but isolation is bringing the awareness that I like socializing. It was hard to find a balance, but I now am allowing myself thirty minutes of social media time in the morning and thirty minutes in the evening.

6. Connection

My daughters check on me every day, offering to do door drop-offs if I need anything and calling to chat. I need that social interaction and also the reassurance we’re there for one another. Make sure to text, call, or Facebook chat with at least one person a day. Time alone is good, but too much can be depressing.

7. Indulge

I’m allowing myself some mindless escape in the form of Netflix and “brain candy” type of books. I don’t even feel guilty about this. We all need some kind of mental relief in these stressful times, and this is a harmless way to get it.

diane morrow kondos holds a stack of book, for article on decreasing anxiety

Books are essential for me. What is your stress-relieving hobby?

Since I took these self-protective measures, I’m feeling my anxiety decrease somewhat, but I still feel like I need to be protective of my mental health, as well as my physical health, during this pandemic. At the age of 61, I’m discovering things about myself. I’m not the introvert I always thought I was. I need people. Even the casual interactions at the gym and coffee shop are more vital to my well-being than I previously realized. I am a person that craves structure and routine, another forced self-discovery.

And then there are the more superficial realizations. I eat out way too often, my closet needed cleaning more than I thought it did, my house is home to too many dust bunnies and cobwebs, and Netflix is worth every penny!

christmas and easter decor in front of diane morrow kondos home

Taking Mayor Bynum’s suggestion to hang up Christmas light to boost our spirits, I decorated the front yard with the Easter Bunny, Santa, and a message of “Hi!” for people passing by. It cheered me up anyway!

I’m staying optimistic, seeking sunshine, happy things, and believing in the saying, “This too shall pass.” We will get through this if we are all thoughtful of not only ourselves, but others as well. The uptick, if you can imagine there could be one, is a forced slowing down, time to connect with family, and after it’s over, a renewed appreciation for freedoms and friendships.

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