Given the constant stream of negative news about the novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to feel anxious and uncertain. Anxiety is an understandable reaction, since coronavirus has made many of us change our daily routines, and it threatens our sense of safety. It can be difficult to let go of these thoughts and feelings, but we can also try to use this anxiety to develop habits that can protect our mental health.
Our brain has the capacity to change and “rewire” in response to our experiences. We call this capacity “neural plasticity.” If we have recurrent, anxious thoughts, we are establishing neural connections that make thinking anxious thoughts easier for us the next time.
But we can also use anxious thoughts as triggers for engaging in activities and thoughts that help manage and reduce anxiety. In this way, we can transform anxiety into a building block for habits that support our well-being when we face challenging circumstances.
So the next time you notice anxious thoughts racing through your mind or feel your shoulders tensing up from worry, try one of these activities to turn your anxiety into a prompt for better mental habit.
1. Practice Self-Care
When you feel anxious or overwhelmed, the simplest thing you can do is to just take three slow, deep breaths to calm down. Count slowly to four as you breathe in and then count slowly to five as you breathe out.
This simple exercise helps increase activation in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with resting and digesting. It also reduces the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our fight-or-flight response and is linked to anxiety.
Other self-care options include listening to your favorite upbeat song or a enjoying some brief physical exercise at home. These can help improve your mental health and reduce anxiety.
2. Do Something Relaxing
After waking up and just before you go to sleep, try to do things that are relaxing and uplifting. What you do early in the morning sets the mood for the day. If you notice having anxious thoughts soon after waking, try to think about something positive, if you can. Or do a few mindful stretches and focus on the sensations in your body.
In the evening, try to avoid reading news or comments on social media about the virus spread. Negative emotions experienced in the evening impact sleep quality. Listening to a calming podcast, practicing meditation, or using other relaxation techniques might help calm anxiety before bed.
3. Notice the Small Things
Reading the latest news about COVID-19 and planning all the changes to your work, child care, or travel can lead to a nearly constant stream of stressful or anxious thoughts. When you notice the worry building up, try to look or listen to the things around you.
Notice flowers in your garden, clouds in the sky, or the sound of a bird outside. Take a couple of minutes just to see or listen. This simple mindfulness practice not only gives your busy mind a bit of a break, but it also may reduce activity in the midline structures of the prefrontal cortex of the brain involved in anxious rumination. As a result, you may find that you start feeling less anxious.
4. Do Something to Help
Some people might react to anxiety with hoarding behaviors like the panic-buying and stockpiling of groceries in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Others respond to anxiety with compassion, through prosocial behaviors such as helping or sharing. Prosocial behavior can protect our well-being.
When feeling anxious, think about doing something positive. Maybe this is just dropping an email to your colleague or friend and asking how they’re doing. Or perhaps you can call older relatives so that they have somebody to talk to for 10 minutes. There are many other ways to help—the main one is staying at home so that you (and others) don’t catch or spread the virus.
5. Put Things Into Perspective
Our mind has a built-in negativity bias making us think of and remember negative events better than positive ones. This helps us remember, for example, not to eat certain foods that made us ill in the past, but it also means we notice and remember negative events more clearly than positive ones.
Knowing this, when you feel anxious, try to make a conscious effort to overcome the negativity bias. This might mean changing your perspective and trying to remind yourself of the many positive things that have happened because of coronavirus—such as examples of kindness, or reductions in pollution. Research shows that increased hope strongly predicts decreases in anxiety.
6. Meditate or Pray
More than 80 percent of adults in the United States identify as spiritual or religious. Spirituality and religiousness have been associated with better well-being, particularly because they give us a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Having a sense of purpose and meaning can also protect us against anxiety.
You can use your feelings of anxiety as a reminder to meditate or say a short prayer. Even brief regular meditations may reduce anxiety levels.
Of course, different activities might work better for different people. So list a couple of activities that you believe will help calm you down. Then try to do these things the next time you feel anxious to eventually turn your negative thoughts and feelings into habits that support your mental health.
In this way, you will be creating new connections in the brain that will associate anxiety with something positive instead of an endless spiral of negative thoughts and feelings. With practice, you may find that any anxiety you may have in response to the negative headlines becomes less threatening and easier to let go of.
is a lecturer of psychology in the Education Research Centre at the Department of Education at the University of York in England. This article was first published on The Conversation.