What is anxiety and why are we more anxious now?
Stress is an adaptive mechanism of the body that helps us prepare for danger or challenge. The danger could be a predator, the wild or a prey that we must catch. Confronted by it, we feel threatened (to save ourselves from a predator) or challenged (to catch that prey). Stress is what happens when our body recognizes this challenge or threat and responds to it. It is preparing us to act (fight or flee) in this situation.
In our current world, few of us are faced with wildlife predators or prey. In today’s scenario our threats and challenges can be deadlines, waking up on time, making a good impression at a date or interview, exams, losing weight or even socializing at a party. The stress response often gives us the energy to power through such situations, but sometimes it causes an avoidance response (flee the situation by skipping the exam, staying in bed, or not going to that party).
Anxiety comes in when the stress is prolonged. While stress is directly related to a situation and goes away as the situation goes away (after exams, when you meet your deadline, after the date goes well), anxiety doesn’t dissipate that easily.
What the COVID-19 situation does is that it puts a stress on us by constantly exposing us to a host of negative information about the present and the future. There is a lot of uncertainty. However, when our fight or flight response is activated, there is not much we can do to change the situation outside. So, the stress stays and can often turn into anxiety.
How do we know we have anxiety?
When faced with danger or a challenge, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated. This is what we experience as stress and anxiety. At this point our body thinks that it needs to prepare us for the challenge or danger and various systems of our body are put into action. Our blood flow also changes so that more blood and consequently more oxygen is available to muscles (so that we can fight or flee) and less to skin, hair and nails (so we bleed less). This is why our heart rate increases, we feel restless, more blood is being pumped, more oxygen is being distributed. This is why many of us have tense muscles and body pains due to anxiety, and tingling sensations, sweating, cold hands and feet.
Digestion becomes slowed down as it is not of prime importance during a dangerous situation, and so many of us face stomach issues such as nausea. Other issues can be headache, feeling too cold or hot, dizziness, weakness and fatigue. We can also find it harder to concentrate, have racing thoughts, selectively think about only the triggers of our stress. We may have feelings of dread, restlessness, tension, irritability, panic or even sadness.
What to do about it?
We spoke about the our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) that activates our anxiety response. Thankfully, we also have the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that relaxes us. We can learn to activate this nervous system to enable us to subdue the SNS. Both are not active at the same time. Here are some ways we can do that:
- Deep Breathing
Diaphragmatic Breathing is a technique that slows down our breathing and activates our parasympathetic nervous system. The focus here is to ensure you are expanding your stomach instead of your chest. Take in a long, deep breath, letting the breath expand your stomach as you inhale. Your stomach will go in as you breathe out. Do this for 60 seconds at a go to help your body activate the relaxation response.
- Relaxation techniques
There are various relaxation techniques that you can learn how to do such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Body Scanning techniques, as well as various forms of meditation. Do what suits you best, taking help of relaxing music, videos, or apps to guide you. (I intend to write separate articles on these techniques, preferably videos or audios.)
Mindfulness is being completely aware of the present moment. You can practice mindfulness at any time by immersing yourself completely in the current moment. You can choose to use any object, taking it in your hand, noticing every little detail about it, its colour, shape, texture, size, how it feels in your hand, its purpose, its origin, its story, any or every information that you can bring your attention to.
You can choose to practice mindfulness in the shower, by noticing how the water feels, its temperature, pressure; how the soap feels, and how the whole experience feels including the sights, the smells, and sensations. You can also practice the same while eating (texture, taste, smell, origins of the food, etc.), while walking on grass, or just tune in to the sensations in your body.
Visualization is a technique in which we imagine a scene or situation in our minds. Visualizing an exam, a job interview or a date going wonderfully; through visualizing it can help you prepare and reduce your anxiety regarding the same.
However, to activate the PNS, visualize a serene or comforting scene/situation such as a beach, a garden, a castle, or even a spaceship. It may be a scenic place from the past, or something you made up. Visualise it time and again until it becomes easier and easier to go to that place to relax.
While intense exercise can activate the SNS, mild to moderate exercise (that increases our heart rate) can induce a relaxation response. Exercise also boosts confidence and overall mental health. You can find innovative ways to exercise at home, using online videos, a skipping rope or just by jogging on the spot.