May 9th, 2020

Take A Breath…

Larry Laveman, LCSW, BCD

The entire world is focused on coronavirus right now, but this virus isn’t the only thing that’s contagious, so is the anxiety associated with it. As the coronavirus spreads and dominates the news cycle, you’ll probably notice yourself getting more and more anxious every time you turn on the TV. That’s because the news is contagious. You may also experience greater anxiety when you talk to anxious friends. That’s because other people’s anxiety is contagious. When your kids are anxious, you will undoubtedly feel more anxiety too. Clearly, our children’s anxiety is contagious. But most of all, anxiety is an emotion that looks to confirm itself, and when it does, it only propagates further and stronger. In other words, your own anxiety is contagious!

To stop the spread of anxiety we first have to understand the loop it creates from worry to anxiety to fear to panic. If we can pull back a little and acknowledge that we have every right to be anxious, we can then shift our focus to something more productive before our worries intensify. We can limit the news we watch, we can choose what friends we talk to, we can check in with family members about how they’re occupying their time and look for ways to create a healthy variation in the content we discuss. A recent study outlined in the NY Timessuggests that the more we look at coronavirus statistics the more anxious we become and the more we believe we’re likely to get it. Those who check frequently also tend to stock up on supplies and consider worst case scenario outcomes. This is a good example of how the “worry to anxiety to fear to panic” loop works. The more we check statistics, the more anxious we become. The more anxious we become, the more pressure we feel to stock up on supplies, especially when we see stories about cleared out shelves and toilet paper shortages. The increased pressure to stock up on supplies causes us to visit the grocery store more often where we see empty shelves, which invokes fear. The fear that we won’t be able to get supplies causes us to then “panic buy”. The conclusion is that the more we worry, the more worried we become.

Worry is also heightened by waiting. We’re all waiting for the virus to get worse in the United States, which is confirmed by the headlines we see; we collectively hold our breath and wait for the worst to occur. This creates two levels of worry that feed anxiety. The first is a sense of anticipatory dread, or what is called anticipatory anxiety. In this case, we’re anticipating something we can’t see, which creates a fear of the unknown. That fear is exacerbated by not knowing how long we will be sheltering in place. Anxiety, trembling, rapid heart rate, dizziness, dry mouth, difficulty breathing are all associated with the fear of the unknown. The second level of anxiety is our tendency to hold our breath when we’re waiting for something bad to happen. Without sufficient air we can become lightheaded, sluggish and ultimately more anxious. As you can see, symptoms of “level one” worry overlap with “level two” worry causing us to lose perspective and anticipate the worst. Here’s where meditation, yoga, exercise and diaphragmatic breathing will help ease our anxiety. We need a good exhale.

None of us have experience with this kind of unseen and prolonged threat. The longer our normal routine is disrupted, the more we’ll develop a rhythm to our new normal rather than feel so out of sorts. It’s important that as a new rhythm gets established we keep a regular routine so our days are structured. This will give us, and our children, a sense of normalcy and regularity. The virus doesn’t exist in solitude, so make sure you find some time to breathe and meditate. The virus doesn’t exist in nature, so make sure you go out for a walk. The virus doesn’t exist in silence, so make sure you periodically turn off the TV and sit still. And if you find yourself getting bored then consider that a good sign. The more boring your life becomes the less exposure you will have and the better the outcome will be. Finally, when you have a moment, read Kitty O’Meara’s poem, which starts with the line, And the people stayed home. It’s going viral for good reason. It is very uplifting and hopeful.

Stay well and stay safe. This is not permanent.

Larry Laveman, LCSW, BCD practices in Solana Beach, California.