Practical tips that made a huge difference.
I wouldn't say I'm a particularly anxious person. But since the onset of Coronavirus, I know I'm not alone in seeing my stress levels shoot upwards. My mates have all relayed flitting from feeling perfectly normal, to floored with anxiety.
In many ways our lives have stayed the same. We can still sit and watch telly, we can go for a walk, we can text our mates and sunbathe on the balcony. But then, all of a sudden, we're reminded that we're in the midst of a pandemic, and things really aren't the same at all. Jobs are on the line. Lives are on the line. And, it's possible we picked up the virus along with that pint of milk from the shops. Before we know it, we're in full blown panic mode. It's a feeling the lingers in our minds subconsciously even when we've calmed down.
That's how I found myself on a Zoom call with mindfulness teacher, clinical hypnotherapist and meditation coach, Terrence the Teacher. I volunteered to try it out as I wanted to find practical ways to soothe stress and the uncomfortable feeling that's cropped up in my chest.
"Our bodies and brains thrive on habit creation and the minute things change greatly, it creates anxiety, so you’re not alone in feeling more anxious than usual. It’s a normal process," Terrence reassures me via video chat from his home. Coronavirus has changed our lives and our routines monumentally. "Our bodies want back that routine, it wants back that feeling of habit," he says, which is why we can feel so out of kilter. But, we can’t go back to the routines we had, or the way things were, so, what do we do?
1. Stop thinking things will get better when Coronavirus is over
"We live in a very false sense of reality where we think we know what tomorrow will bring," says Terrence. If we’re placing all of our emotions on a future projection – like I’ll feel better once Coronavirus is over – we're prolonging our anxiety. "If you wish for it to go away, rather than focusing on how you can take control, it will keep you in fear and discomfort," warns Terrence.
"You don't know what tomorrow will bring, but what you do have is this moment. Your responsibility is to look after yourself from moment to moment. If you optimise yourself right now, you’ll get to the next moment in a better way," he says. "Not every second will be great – you might watch the Coronavirus news and you’ll feel your anxiety levels building – but after, you can go and cook yourself a nice meal or read a book. We’re so lucky that we can."
The key is accepting things as they are. "I call it the triple As," says Terrence.
Awareness of what’s going on.
Focusing your attention.
And acceptance of what you can’t change.
"I know what I can’t change," he says. "I can’t change this illness. So I’ve got to accept that it’s in our lives. Where do I pay the most attention? It’s on taking control of the things I can," he says. "Focus on being OK with how things are right now – acknowledge it, pay attention to it, accept it."
Rather than waiting for this to be over, we should appreciate what it’s given us – such as time at home, a break from the commute and perspective.
2. Take back control
Our routines have changed completely. We're not commuting into work, we're blurring the boundaries between our professional lives and our personal ones. This can make a difference to things like anxiety and sleep. "At the moment, we have a loss of control – things are very uncertain. So what you want to do is take control back," says Terrence.
This could be making changes to your environment. It can be tricky as our homes aren't set up to be offices, creches and everything in between. But if you can; compartmentalise. "Try and keep your bedroom for sleep, avoid working in there if possible," says Terrence, otherwise when you try to switch off, you'll associate your sleep environment with your work environment. Keep your laptop out of your bedroom to make a clear distinction.
It's also important to make your routine work for you." The best place to start is in the morning. When you wake up, don’t put on the news, listen to social media or go on your emails," he says. "Take charge." This could be doing a meditation, making a cup of tea or having a nice shower. "Cortisol levels (which cause stress) are high first thing in the morning," explains Terrence, "so don't look at your phone or your emails until you've done a few things for yourself. Then you'll get into your day at a better point," he says. "Throughout the day, continuously reset yourself with exercises that make you feel calm [more on that below]."
As for evenings, "the body falls asleep because melatonin increases and serotonin decreases, but it only does this if you don’t stimulate yourself with your phone screens and bright lights," explains Terrence. "For an hour or two before bed, dim the lights, put your phone away and slow down," he says. Make a ritual out of brushing your teeth and cleansing your face. Wash away your worries and help notify your body that it's time slow down.
Finally, educate yourself. The more you understand about what's going on in your body, the more in control you'll feel. "On average we can only have 5-7 thoughts in our conscious mind. But subconsciously, we have up to 11 million thoughts going on in the background," says Terrence. This is what can cause the lingering low-level panic we feel in our chests. When this builds up, it can lead to spikes in anxiety.
"Panic attacks are just increased adrenaline and cortisol levels. They’ve built up during the day and you’ve not burned them off because you’ve not been able to get out or jog home from work for example," says Terrence. "All the body wants to do is help you release it because you’ve been in fight or flight mode, so it pushes up the heart rate to burn it out. It’s good to understand how the brain works to deal with this so you know what's happening."
3. Learn how to calm yourself and clear your mind
Our fight or flight response is triggered when we’re stressed. "When we’re anxious it can take our whole focus which means we’re not connecting with other parts of our brain, like creativity, memory or perception," says Terrence.
"A study undertaken by leading mindfulness professor, Jon Kabat-Zinn, with cancer patients in the 1970s found that MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) could reduce distress. MRI scans actually picked up the changes in the brain. It also helped to reduce pain levels and improve immune responses," reveals Terrence. Therefore, we know that stress can take the focus off of our physical wellbeing as well. But, if we're able to calm ourselves, not only will this help with our mental health, but also things like building immunity – which is especially important right now.
"You can regulate your adrenaline by calming yourself," says Terrence. "Slowing your breathing can take your thought process from beta [which is fast, erratic and insular], to alpha [which is slower, calmer and open]. This gives other parts of your brain a chance to be heard."
"Whenever I feel a bit anxious I do this: 'Breathing in [he breathes in]. Breathing out [he breathes out]. Breathing in. Breathing out,'" says Terrence. "Where is your attention? You’ve changed the focus from the things that were worrying you, to your breath. You've focused in on one thing, on purpose, in the moment. Before you know it, your thoughts will calm down, which means your emotions calm down and then you physically calm down."
"It’s not a trick, it’s very simple. It’s just using anatomy and physiology to help you," says Terrence. "When you're stressed, there’s a lot of cortisol and adrenaline running through you. You want to increase dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin – all the feel-good chemicals. When you breathe you enhance all of these and that makes you feel more relaxed, more calm, more present and more in control." It clears the way for other, more positive thoughts and feelings.
These are the breathing exercises Terrence recommends.
The labelled breathing exercise:
Notice your breath, is it fast or slow? Answer in your mind.
Ask yourself, "is my breath deep or shallow?"
Ask yourself, where in your body you notice yourself breathing? Is it your stomach, chest throat?
As you breathe in, in your mind, say “breathing in”.
As you breathe out, in your mind, say “breathing out”.
Do this for about a minute, then at your own pace, slowly open your eyes.
The 7/11 breathing exercise:
Notice your breath, is it fast or slow?
Ask yourself, "is my breath deep or shallow?"
Ask yourself, “where in my body do I feel myself breathing?”
Breathe in for the count of 7.
When you breathe out, count up to 11.
If you struggle with deep breaths, breathe in for 5 counts and out for 9.
When you’re ready, at your own pace and in your own time, open your eyes.
The breath out is longer as you’re getting rid of the carbon monoxide to make way for fresh breath. Also this technique helps to distract the mind.
Use either techniques to check in on your breath right through the day. "It can be 30 seconds, a minute or two minutes," says Terrence. "If you notice your anxiety levels are high, go make yourself a drink or a tea, and while the kettle’s boiling, check in on your breathing. Just that noticing and checking will help the body to reset a little bit. The more you do it, the more natural it will feel."
Before we end our session, Terrence left me with this pearl of advice. "Life’s a gift. Even in this shitty time, we can grow, we can expand, we can get out stronger, but first, you need to look after yourself. Mindfulness," he adds, "is empowering because you can do it yourself."
It's been several weeks since I spoke to Terrence and I've found myself using his advice most days. I moved my workspace from my bedroom dresser to the kitchen table which helped me to switch off from work and sleep easy for the first time since I started WFH. His breathing techniques, too, have kept me cooler during sweaty-palm meetings and Covid updates. Like most of us, I still feel panicky when I dwell on the situation, but I know how to catch myself when this happens, which makes me feel more in control. The biggest difference has been changing my mindset. We can't change the situation, but we can try to roll with it and look for the positives.
This article was originally published on GLAMOUR UK