Corona Diaries: How to Reduce Anxiety & Increase Psychological Resilience
Lately, I find myself reading about psychology and watching online live streams of psychiatrists more frequently than usual. Just as the technical knowledge you possess about the aircraft and how it flies will reduce your fear of flying, understanding our emotions and thoughts on a deeper level might comfort us psychologically.
Combining lived experiences and acquired knowledge can help us learn more about ourselves and guide us in times of adversity. Last year, I was on my way to Iceland. While descending towards Keflavik Airport, we experienced quite a heavy turbulence. I tend to get nervous even during the tiniest rocking during the flight. Clinched to my seat, I took a deep breath and looked around. Other passengers where still minding their business and the cabin crew was still smiling in a calmly manner. At that moment, I realized that the severity of the turbulence must have been normal for Iceland, which helped me to calm down. Our landing was still disturbingly shaky. However, this experience would become my reference point for future experiences. From that moment onwards, whenever I experience a turbulence on a flight I remind myself that “it isn't as bad as the one in Iceland”, besides helping me to relax, I also came to find it amusing at times and catch myself smiling. Accordingly, this very stressful journey actually helped me to increase my level of resilience. Situations that seem unbearable guide us to stretch our comfort zones, they have the tendency to make us stronger and gain new perspectives. However, going through several stress or anxiety inducing situations that constantly continue, such as the pandemic might actually affect us negatively after some time.
Resilience can briefly be described as effectively coping with problems without feeling helpless. In terms of resilience, I also find it important to distinguish worry, stress and anxiety from one another. Even though we tend to use these three words interchangeably in our daily lives, they all have different influences. Stress and worry, up to a certain point, can actually be helpful in coping with adversity whereas high levels of anxiety might hinder us.
The Difference between Worry, Stress & Anxiety:
Worry is sum of the negative and obsessive thoughts that constantly stream through our mind during stressful occasions. Worry is usually experienced on a cognitive level. Up to a certain point, it helps us to solve problems and keep us safe by activating our survival instinct. However, high levels of constant worry can reduce our daily functioning.
Stress is the physical response we develop against the external and negative situations. It activates our fight, flight or freeze response and increases the level of cortisol in our bodies. The physiological signs of stress are heart racing, fast breathing and sweating. Like worry, stress can be helpful and keep us alert, but after a certain level, chronic stress may cause heart attacks, decrease in cognitive functioning and in the immense systems due to constantly being in a fight-flight or freeze mode.
Anxiety is experienced on a cognitive and physical level. In other words, it is the combination of stress and worry. While stress is a natural response to an external threat, anxiety can be described as a response to a false alarm. Fear and uncertainty cause anxiety and negative thoughts might have an influence on it. It is normal to feel anxious during the day, but constant state of anxiety can be counterproductive for daily functioning.
Briefly put, certain levels of stress and worry can be helpful because the body releases adrenaline and cortisol, which helps us get more alert, focused and effectively solve problems. Hence, balancing our stress level during times of adversity can actually help cope with problems. Resilience, on one side, depends on multiple factors such as; the situation itself, the person’s internal resources, genetic and external factors. However, this does not mean that we are helpless in face of difficult situations. On the contrary, resilience can be developed and strengthened. Below are some methods that help increase resilience and cope with anxiety.
Surpressing might not be the solution: What if I ask you to think about anything but a red ball. You will probably think of a red ball. This shows that, for every thought we try to suppress, our brain will actively focus on it more. Accordingly, it is important to be aware of our emotions and thoughts, whether it be positive or negative.
Getting out of the comfort zone: Building resilience entails doing things that you do not like, trying new things and being vulnerable. This also entails failing, but getting back up again eventually.
Perfection is the enemy of possibility: As Psychiatrist Dr. Gulcan Ozer mentions, waiting for everything to be perfect will cause procrastination, which in turns may lead to feelings of anxiety and unhappiness.
Celebrating small success and self-care: We can become cruel when it comes to criticism towards ourselves, but we would not even dare to criticize others that hard. However, it is as important to celebrate small successes, as it is to not criticize yourself too hard in face of failure. After all, failing is just a part of life’s richness.
Baby steps: Habits acquired over a longer period of time tend to stick around. Instead of expecting a dramatic change overnight, taking small steps towards the behaviors we want to change will create sustainable habits. For instance, if we want to exercise for an hour three times a week, we can start with exercising for fifteen minutes each day and then, slowly increase the duration.
Joyful hobbies: Spending time on the hobbies that make us happy will recharge our resources, which will help us cope with adversity. This, in turn, strengthens resilience.
Learning opportunity: It might be helpful to learn what kind of impacts stress or anxiety has on our mind and body, how to turn it into a benefit for us and raise self-confidence. Try to turn each opportunity into a lesson. While going though stressful phases we can ask ourselves how we can deal with it in the best way and what we can do to learn from it, rather than dwelling on why this happened to us. For instance, start by writing down three things that you want to learn during adverse times like the pandemic. However, we also need to mind that setting too many or unrealistic goals can make us feel overwhelmed.
Knowing yourself: Being aware of our reactions to a negative situation will help us to realize our unhealthy responses to it. For instance, someone who tends to eat when dealing with emotional difficulties can stop eating too much by being aware of the main cause that triggers that particular behavior.
Reference point: By learning from the previous experiences have that caused feelings like stress and anxiety, we can set ourselves a reference point for the future events. Remembering how we dealt with the situation successfully, what kind of methods we used to cope with that problem, and how that previous experience bears similarities with the current one enables us to benefit from the same resources while dealing with it.
The meaning of community: Research indicates that, when we feel ourselves as part of a community or group, and know that the things we are doing will help others as well, bad events tend to affect us much less.
The most resilient people are the ones that have been through the hardest failures, gave themselves the time to recover, and got back up again. A big part of developing resilience is being flexible. People who show flexibility and humility tend have less anxiety, compared to people who try to control everything around themselves. Realizing that some events are uncontrollable will make us flexible. That, in turn, is the key to endure tough times and develop resilience.
We need to mind that corona is not only a biological, but also a psychological virus, which is constantly making us feel stressful. We unfortunately are not all in the same conditions. While some of us have the opportunity to travel first-class, have the chance to stay and work home, be around our loved ones, the others are trying to hold on to their oxygen masks. Each person goes through different experiences, trying out different coping techniques, and internal resources when dealing with adversity. It is normal for some to feel exhausted and as they are losing all their power. At such times, it is important to get psychological support and learn the ways of reducing the level of anxiety.
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