Working from home: Dealing with anxiety
How to stay calm in the face of panic
This is the second in a series of posts where we will discuss the various aspects of working from home. For anyone who cannot work from home: we are so grateful for everything you are doing to keep us safe, fed, operational, and healthy. We hope that by staying out of your way as much as possible, we can contribute in turn to your safety and health.
If you are working from home, you are lucky. But you are also probably isolated and stressed, and you still have to work. You have to be functional. Stress and anxiety are rational responses to the state of the world now, and many of our usual stress relievers – hanging with friends, going to the movies, going to the gym, seeing a therapist in person – are not possible. So, what can we do?
“One of the first things to know is that we're all processing a huge amount of trauma and a huge amount of information,” said Robin Abrahams, author of the Miss Conduct column for the Boston Globe. “Either one of those are enough to really knock you off and make you exhausted and take up a great deal of physical and emotional and cognitive energy. So accept that as normal.”
Abrahams, a research associate at Harvard Business School with a doctorate in research psychology, has been writing the Miss Conduct advice column for the Boston Globe for 15 years. In that time she has seen many instances of local and global events affecting our social and personal responsibilities.
“Stress is a combination of who you were when you went through the situation and the situation itself,” she said. “So your patterns of how you respond to stress are always going to be the same because they're you, but it's going to change up a little bit when you're dealing with something completely different.”
Based on the advice of Abrahams and several other sources, here are some ideas for managing coronavirus anxiety. The real key is to use whatever tools work for you, and as always, to be kind to yourself.
“Just breathe” sounds easy, but it can work. When mental tension is rising, it triggers physiological responses ranging from rapid heart rate to chest pain. Deep breaths – from the belly, counting to five while breathing in and out – can short circuit these responses and help you calm down. Abrahams recommends trying it while laying on your back with your legs up the wall, and there are several online resources with other tips and techniques to try. Practicing whichever technique you prefer when you are not panicking can help as well.
"Simply, you think of a repetitive phrase or a visual image,” Abrahams said. “You concentrate on that. As other thoughts come, you allow them to come and you dismiss them.”
Meditating for ten minutes twice a day can help reset your brain. Beyond the immediate benefits of calming down in the moment, meditation can train your brain to accept unwanted thoughts without becoming fixated on them. These thoughts will come – acknowledge them, and then go back to thinking of your peaceful river or your personal mantra. Later in the day when you are trying to concentrate on work and a stray, stressful thought crosses your mind, you will have had practice dismissing it.
Find some fun
Do something that makes you happy. Read a book, watch TV, chat with friends, anything. If your regular routes of enjoyment are cut off, find something new or a new way to enjoy your hobbies.
For example, Abrahams has been reading scripts with theater friends online. One of the stressful aspects of the current crisis is its stagnation – we have had one big radical change, and now things are stuck for an indeterminate length of time, leading to (virtual) circular conversations. Reading scripts gives Abrahams and her friends a chance to socialize without having to dwell on our current predicament. Whether it is reading aloud, singing, or playing online games together, finding a way to socialize with structure can make these interactions more fun.
Go to a pro
There are still ways to seek out professional help and resources from home. Below are several online resources, ranging from government information to online therapists. The trick is finding one that works for you. Above all, as Abrahams suggests, be kind to yourself and others. Our panic responses are better at handling brief emergencies than an ongoing crisis, so it is important to acknowledge this reality.
“It's like you're trying to make a quarter horse - and I don't know where this metaphor came from except my Oklahoma childhood - it's like you're trying to make a quarter horse do the work of a Clydesdale,” she said. “You're trying to make something that's built for short burst of energy pull a wagon on the long haul, and it's hard.”
“Dealing with this is not ever going to feel good. There's not going to be a moment when you wake up and you're living your best coronavirus life. The best you can do is to get yourself to functioning, to finding the moments of joy, to not being on flight or fight."
CDC resources - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers advice for identifying and dealing with COVID-19 related stress for yourself and your dependents. The website is also available in Spanish.
Free classes - Online classes like this one, offered free via Coursera from the University of Toronto, are available to help teach people to recognize and deal with COVID-19 anxiety.