If we can all agree on one thing, it's that the past couple of years have been particularly anxiety-inducing. It makes sense – there's been a lot to worry about. First, there was the threat of a new, unknown virus and its potential to cause unprecedented suffering. Suddenly, we were battling with a whole host of what-ifs (anxiety's worst enemy) causing us all to become overnight experts in infectious diseases. We promptly collected our diplomas from the University of Google, promising to spread our subpar understanding far and wide with all the confidence of a Cambridge scholar.
Then, we started worrying about actually catching Covid-19, which became a responsibility that fell largely in our own hands and has remained for the entire duration of the pandemic. We put on masks, scrubbed our skin and avoided human contact. On top of that, we've all been worrying about how loved ones were fairing, agonising over our finances and fretting about the future.
Enter 2022 and the pandemic isn't the beast it used to be. Most people in the UK are vaccinated, and hospitalisations are way, way down with symptoms being compared to those of the common cold. According to many, Covid-19 is nothing to worry about anymore, but as the threat dissipates, our anxiety is left high and dry with nowhere to go.
“People may be experiencing free-floating anxiety as we start to see the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, as our brains have been prepared and programmed over the past two years to respond to the pandemic as a threat to our lives," explains Jade Thomas, registered psychotherapist & psychologist in Doctoral Training at Private Therapy Clinic.
"Our brains automatically respond to an unpredictable, potentially dangerous situation with a ‘flight or fight’ response but as we are gradually being conditioned to perceive Covid-19 to be less threatening and we’re starting to return to ‘normality’, we may find that our feelings of anxiety persevere, consequently leading to symptoms of free-floating anxiety.”
While free-floating anxiety isn't categorised as a recognised mental health disorder, it's something many of us will no doubt relate to. “Free-floating anxiety is feelings of worry, nervousness, and fear for no clear reason,” notes Dr Houda Ounnas, GP and expert in psychotherapy. “If left unmanaged, the free floating anxiety may latch on to other issues in certain domains, for example, our health or our relationships, as well as other aspects of our lives and can eventually. progress to generalised anxiety disorder, or panic disorder.”
In other words, you might reassign your Covid-19-related anxiety to becoming ill with a different disease and start to obsess over possible symptoms. Alternatively, you might reassign it to something else entirely, which is an easy jump when the world has presented so much to worry about recently.
According to both experts, free-floating anxiety can cause a range of symptoms including mounting stress levels and insomnia, so it's important to get a handle on it as soon as possible. “Some simple ways to redirect or manage free-floating anxiety might include grounding techniques or mindfulness,” says Jade. “Both bring a sense of comfort back to the body and help you feel more in control.”
Jade suggests a simple technique known as the ‘333 method’ that can easily be done at home. “Name 3 things you can see, 3 things you can hear and 3 things you can feel,” she says. “Other grounding techniques might include a ‘body-scan’. Bring awareness to each part of your body starting at your feet and working your way up to you head.”
As for those moments when the anxiety has already set in, Dr Ounnas recommends methods to calm the nervous system. “These include anything that puts the body at ease, reducing the physical symptoms of anxiety, and eventually the frequency of the anxiety thoughts by leveraging the mind-body connection. Examples of these would be breathing exercises, hot baths, relaxation time, hot towel treatments, spa and all self care activities.”
Dr Ounnas also stresses the importance of consulting a mental health professional or a doctor if you're feeling overwhelmed. "Ideally, everyone should get a personalised plan because everyone's anxiety is different. Plus, in extreme cases, medications and therapy might be necessary but these should be advised also on an individual basis in personalised consultations with a doctor.
This article was originally published on Glamour UK.