• The coronavirus outbreak has triggered anxiety in those of us previously lucky enough to feel well, and worsened anxiety in those who were already struggling

  • At this time, it's important to use tried-and-tested tools to calm anxious thoughts and boost emotional resilience

  • If you would like to connect with a therapist at this time, start your search here

As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc and instil anxiety across the globe, many of us are feeling challenged in ways we haven't experienced before. The situation we find ourselves in is surreal, alarming, and ever-changing. From this week, we've been asked to largely stay at home, to reduce all non-essential social contact and travel. These measures, we are told, are likely to become more extreme as a war is waged against an invisible enemy that threatens to buckle the country's healthcare system and economy, as well as taking lives. 

But you already know all of this – it's likely been all you can think and talk about. In these times, it's important to lean on your emotional resilience. As we are seeing across the world, people have resources of strength and compassion that they perhaps didn't realise they had. Now is the time to tune in and harness your resilient nature. This might feel difficult, because the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect situation to instil real fear, in the neurological sense. Fear is triggered when a) we perceive a threat, and b) that we perceive we are relatively powerless against that threat. And when we feel fear, our base response is one of fight-flight-freeze. Not a great place to start. There are, however, things we can do to calm our nervous system and bolster emotional and mental resilience.  

Dr Patricia Zurita Ona suggests following these five steps when we feel overwhelmed:

  1. Consciously notice and give names to the negative thoughts and emotions you may experience daily
  2. Check your go-to actions; what is your emotional machinery pushing you to do?
  3. Check the workability of those go-to actions: do they take you closer or further away from your values?
  4. Check what’s truly important for you each particular situation. Step back and ask: who do you want to be in these moments?
  5. Choose a values-based behaviour. Take a step towards what actually matters.

Hypnotherapist John McKenzie suggests that exercise, hobbies, socialising and time outdoors are all integral to boosting emotional resilience. Some of this advice might seem hard to apply in the current circumstances, but it can be done. There is a wealth of videos on YouTube, ranging from yoga to no-equipment body-weight workouts. Use the time that you would be commuting to read, write, draw, play your instrument, meditate, bake, paint, do the DIY – anything that you always wish you had more time to do, and that helps you feel calm and present. 

While we can – and hopefully we may be able to continue doing so – walk in your local common or park; you may need to keep your distance from others but time in nature is healing in times of stress. Especially as spring blooms unawares, spotting blossoms and daffodils is hope-inspiring. 

Socialising may feel like a tricky one; we're fortunate to live in a world that is connected, with tools like FaceTime and Skype to stay in touch with our friends and loved ones. All over social media people are planning global self-isolation parties. The human spirit endures.

Therapist John McKenzie also recommends setting aside one-hour only for 'active worrying':

Rule 1 

You can only worry during your Active Worry time. You can only make a mental note of any worries that come to you outside of this time. This also applies to any worries left unwritten at the end of the worry time.

Rule 2

The worrying has to be written down, and has to follow this structure

  • Ask yourself – “What am I worrying about?”
  • Ask yourself – “Can I do something about it?”
  • If you can’t do something about it then change focus, and let the worry go
  • If you can do something about it then plan - What? When? How?
  • If it’s now then do it, change focus, and let the worry go
  • If it’s later then schedule it, change focus, and let the worry go

Rule 3 

You don’t look back over worries once you’ve written them down. Most people write the worries on individual pieces of paper and keep them in a box or bag.

During active worrying you’re learning an effective structure for worries, and in the time outside you’re learning to let them go.

At first it may seem mechanical, but after a fortnight people notice having less anxiety, a quieter mind, and normally having difficulty in filling their worry time. Read John's other simple anxiety techniques here.

And if your physical sensations of anxiety feel too much? Try breathing. EMDR therapist Linda Newbold recommends the Drinking Straw Exercise:

  • Obtain a straw or imagine having one. Take a gentle but deep breath. Place straw to mouth and close mouth around straw. Slowly exhale very slowly. Don’t blow. Just exhale until your lungs are 80 percent empty, then remove straw, close mouth and slowly exhale the last twenty percent through your nose. 
  • Allow the in-breath to come, and take three normal breaths to normalise breathing. Then repeat the exercise. 
  • Do this for ten minutes a day for calming, helping breathing difficulties, meditation, addictions, etc. This technique takes your breathing reflex from stressed, fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system breathing to parasympathetic breathing. 

Take a look at Linda's other recommended breathing exercises here.

Welldoing.org is also in partnership with Calm, the meditation app. They have kindly made a selection of their resources available to share with people who don't have the app. You can find these here.

Do take care of yourselves and others, and let's get through this time together.

Further reading

Therapist advice if coronavirus has triggered health anxiety and OCD

Information for therapists working online during coronavirus

Mental flexibility and resilience to change

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable