If you're more anxious than ever, you're not alone. We're all coping with a lot right now—a surging global health crisis, an ongoing financial crisis and loads of uncertainty about everything from childcare to playdates. Makes sense that we're all keyed up.
Whether you have previous experience with anxiety (as many moms do) or this feeling is new to you (but a natural response to this stressful time), you may be wondering how you're supposed to manage your anxiety while keeping it together for your kids.
The good news is, if we choose, we can use this time to build our anxiety coping skills and come out more resilient than before.
What is anxiety? Why is it so intense right now? I feel like my body is working against me.
Anxiety is actually designed to help us. Our bodies have a complex alert system to sense potential threats in our environment; anxiety is this system's signal that tells our brain: "Change detected!" so we can activate our fight-or-flight response.
But here's the thing: Right now, there's no one to fight, and nowhere for flight. So, what does our anxiety do when it can't convert itself into the energy to attack or flee? It just cycles in our body. Over and over again.
And if we don't change our relationship with anxiety, it can continue to torment our thinking, convince us of our helplessness, and come out as frustration.
Can't I just ignore my anxiety? Won't it eventually go away?
Here's a rule about anxiety: The more you avoid anxiety or will it to go away, the worse it becomes.
And here's why: Our body interprets avoidance as confirmation of danger, so the more energy we use to push anxiety away, the more our alert system activates and the more powerfully our anxiety springs back up.
To manage through this time, we need to shift our relationship with anxiety. We need to say to ourselves, "Anxiety is not my enemy. My anxiety is allowed to be there. I can tolerate my discomfort."
But how can I live around my anxiety right now? I have too much to do!
All the coping skills and breathing techniques in the world are only effective if you first do the following:
Acknowledge anxiety. Name your anxiety and locate it in your body if you can. Something like, "I am feeling anxiety right now. My heart is racing, which is a sign of my anxiety."
Validate anxiety. Tell yourself a story of why your anxiety makes sense. Something like, "Our body interprets changes as threats… and wow, there have been so many changes! Makes sense that I'm feeling so anxious."
Give yourself permission to have anxiety. It's okay to have space for these feelings. Say to yourself, "I give myself full permission to be feeling anxious." Maybe add onto that, "Anxiety is not my enemy. It's my very loud friend."
I promise, these are not just touchy-feely steps. We cannot regulate a feeling until we first name it, make sense of it and allow it to be there. And here's a secret—these three steps actually become a large percentage of coping. They'll help manage your anxiety before you start using any of the coping skills listed below.
Acknowledge, validate, permit… then cope.
What are some coping skills for anxiety that I can use right now—even in the midst of all the chaos in my home?
I'm dividing coping strategies into two categories: managing and skill-building. Managing strategies help when you have an anxiety surge. But skill-building is really where it's at because these tactics reduce the likelihood of anxiety surges in the first place. And we'd all like to have fewer anxiety fires, rather than just improving our ability to put the fires out.
Strategies for managing anxiety
Greet your anxious feeling to neutralize its power. Try out, "I see you, worried feeling. We will get through this because I'll keep talking to you." If you can put a gentle hand on your chest at the same time, even better.
This is a great method to teach an anxious child as well. For example, you might say, "Do you know that there's a Worry Girl inside each of us? If we say hi to her, like, 'Oh, hi, Worry Girl, I see you!' then she kind of chills out a bit. Let's keep our eye out for her." Teach your children that trying to drown out or ignore Worry Girl will make her scream even louder.
2. Deep breaths
This is a great activity to do with your children if they're in the room. Announce, "I'm thinking about all the changes in our life. I'm going to take 5 deep breaths. Want to join me?" Put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Breathe in deeply to your diaphragm and then purse your lips like you're holding a straw and blow out very slowly. Long outbreaths activate our calming-down response.
3. Ground yourself in the moment
Anxiety involves worrying about the future. Coping involves returning to the current moment. Announce to your kids, "Let's all pause what we are doing. Let's name items in the room that we see right now. I'll start." Then name physical items around you (a table, a rug, a slice of apple) or even name something about your body's position like, "My feet are pressed into the ground."
4. Find something you can control
When anxiety surges, we need to remind ourselves of our agency in the moment. Talk to yourself about what you can do. For example, you can practice social distancing, wash your hands, and disinfect after going to the grocery store. Remind yourself of other factors in your control: You can make chicken or pasta for dinner or you can watch the news or a funny TV show.
Skill-building strategies for anxiety
1. List your triggers
Make a list of triggers that tend to bring on your panic feelings. This list might include reading the news, talking to a friend who's big on doomsday predictions, dealing with squabbling kids or thinking about your family finances. Having this list helps you recognize what sets off your anxiety, so that you can tell yourself, "Ah, yes. Makes sense that I am feeling anxious right now. I know this situation tends to bring on these uncomfortable feelings." Learning more about how our anxiety works gives us a sense of control.
2. Schedule in worry time
While our anxiety needs acknowledgement, it also needs restrictions so it doesn't permeate every aspect of our life.
Schedule in 5 minutes of Worry Time at the top of every hour or two, at which point, say to your anxiety (yes, really speak to it!), "Worries, you're getting my full attention right now." Tell your kids that you need a few minutes in the bathroom, grab a notebook and record your worried thoughts and feelings.
At the end of Worry Time, talk to your anxiety again: "Okay, worries, our time is up for now. I'm going back to my kids. Only 55 minutes until I give you my full attention again!" Take a few deep breaths. When your worries pop up again, remind them, kindly: "I hear you. I'll give you my full attention very soon." A compassionate attitude when talking to your anxiety is key in making Worry Time effective.
3. Record 5 "Manageable Moments" per day
A Manageable Moment might be as simple as, "While eating my cereal this morning, all felt okay," or "Got though bath time with my kids." Remind yourself that even in the midst of a crisis, there are moments when you feel capable. You might even predict that your future self will continue to find Manageable Moments as the weeks go on.
4. Anticipate + plan for "no end in sight" thoughts
Anxiety exists when uncertainty about the future is coupled with your underestimation of your ability to cope. Catch yourself worrying about coping in the future and gently come back to now.
Tell yourself, "Ah there you are, future worried thoughts. Normal for you to arise. But I'm coming back to right now." Then remind yourself, "All at once, I don't need to get through anything that has no end in sight. I need to get through this next minute. Hour. That's all. And I can do that. Because I'm so strong."
You can say a version of this aloud with your children around, too: "I am so proud of this family for coping so well with all of these changes. Audrey, you are so strong. Landon, you are so strong. And me? I am so strong, too!"
You've got this. Because you're so strong.
This post was originally published March 2020; it has been updated.