Is your anxiety running a little high right now? You’re not alone. The World Health Organization has officially acknowledged that the coronavirus outbreak is generating stress among our population. Many of us are worried about the illness or whether we’ll keep our jobs. A recent survey by the professional social network Fishbowl found that 54% of employees believe the coronavirus will result in layoffs at their companies.
While you may not be able to change what’s to come, you can change your response to it.
“I’ve found it useful to think of anxiety and creativity as the result of a similar process: imagining possible futures that haven’t happened yet,” says Adam Julian Goldstein, visiting partner at the startup seed accelerator Y Combinator. “We can’t eliminate anxiety, but we can choose to focus our thoughts on different things or different time horizons.”
Calming habits can help ease your anxiety. Here are six you may want to adopt to get through the next few months of uncertainty.
1. Rethink your perspective
Your outlook on life has the ability to impact your anxiety level. Goldstein, who recently wrote about the anxiety algorithm of startup founders, recommends a change in perspective. “If you suffer from nightmares, one solution is to stop sleeping, but a better one is to recognize that nightmares aren’t real life,” he says. “Yes, there are a lot of scary things going on right now, and they might affect you or someone you love, but they also might not. Seeing thoughts as distinct from necessary reality can be immensely helpful.”
It can also help to reset your expectations. “If you accept that you might be stuck at home for months—which you very well might—you’ll experience anything better as a gift,” says Goldstein. “If you accept that your company might go out of business, you can put your creativity to work figuring out how to prevent it or deal with it, rather than getting stuck in inaction.”
2. Practice gratitude
Research published by Harvard Medical School found that individuals who practice gratitude lead happier lives, are more optimistic, and have lower stress levels and better health overall. In the midst of challenging times, gratitude can be a game changer, says meditation expert Shari Hembree, author of Journey of the Lightworker.
“When we take five minutes each morning to reflect upon the good things in our lives, we stay focused in the present moment,” she says. “This also allows us to be in a better place and share our positive outlook and good feelings with others.”
Hembree suggests taking a moment to be thankful for something good that exists in your life now, such as family and friends. Keep a gratitude journal. Say “thank you” to anyone who offers you help during the day. Show your appreciation to someone with a simple smile in acknowledgment or with praise. And write a thank-you note or email if someone shows you acts of kindness.
“By practicing gratitude, we feel good about ourselves,” she says. “And, when we feel good, we are less stressed and our immune systems remain stronger.”
3. Focus on your breath
Another habit to calm anxiety is to make sure you’re breathing properly; when you’re anxious, it’s common to breathe too shallow or too rapidly, says Hembree.
“Fear has taken over and we could escalate into a ‘flight-or-fight’ response,” she says. “From a physiology standpoint, the fastest way to stop our emotional response is to take five to 10 slow, even breaths. By pumping rich oxygen into our lungs, we become calmer and more able to refocus our thoughts to alleviate our fears. We can do this at any point during our day, and the benefits are immediate.”
Hembree suggests adding breathing techniques throughout the day. One way is to close your eyes if possible and inhale deeply to the count of three to five seconds. Hold your breath for two to three seconds and then exhale to the same count.
“This technique originates in India where practitioners of yoga learned to inhale and exhale for an hour while practicing yoga poses,” says Hembree. “The poses are less important, while maintaining a steady pattern of breathing is paramount.”
4. Use positive self-talk
Having a positive mantra that’s easily accessible can help you calm anxiety, says Richard Citrin, Ph.D., author of The Resilience Advantage.
“On my computer, I have a note that says, ‘Be in the Moment,'” he says. “When I start to get caught up with the craziness—and there is a lot out there—that note reminds me that all I have is right here and now.”
Citrin also suggests asking for affirmations. “We do not get enough positives in our lives,” he says. “[Renowned positive psychologist] Barbara Fredrickson’s research says we need three to five positives for every negative. Building the habit of asking a loved one or good friend about how you are doing can instantly change your thinking as others won’t validate your negative thoughts.”
5. Find ways to connect
Social distancing can feel lonely, but you can find ways to stay connected virtually, suggests stress management and research expert Eric First, M.D., cofounder and chief scientific officer of R3SET and Fellow of the The American Institute of Stress. “Even if you are home alone, no need to isolate,” he says. “Now is a great time to reach out to those you have been meaning to connect with.”
6. But also unplug
It can be tempting to keep the news on constantly, but that can feed your anxiety. Kelsey Patel, author of Burning Bright: Rituals, Reiki, and Self-Care to Heal Burnout, Anxiety, and Stress strongly recommend turning off the news by 8 p.m.
“Perhaps even turn your phone onto airplane mode at night so you can give your body permission to start unwinding and getting into a rest and repair mode,” she says. “It’s so important for the central nervous system to calm down and be able to receive restorative sleep.”
Sleep is an immunity booster and the more people have the ability to sleep and rest well, the better their minds and energy levels will be for whatever the next day has in store, says Patel.
Use the time when you unplug to do those things you’ve had on your to-do list for a while, suggests First. “Get lost reading the latest fiction best seller, or finally organizing that closet,” he says. “This helps shift your mindset back to the present away from the stress.”