Mindfulness and Anxiety during COVID-19

The worldwide pandemic has affected all of us. One thing I’ve noticed is a general increase in anxiety in almost everyone I know. And interestingly, in various different ways. Understandably some people are more anxious about their physical health, whereas some are more anxious about how they are impacted financially. Some have been more anxious about how they will cope socially due to the restrictions. And some are just more anxious about the future in general and what that might bring for them.

Depending on how we have been affected, as well as our differing values in life, will depend on how we will feel, and what area of our life we find ourselves most anxious. Interestingly, I have found that the people fairing the best, are the people not thinking so much about the future.

A lot of the time I think something that gives us a sense of safety in this world is having some perceived predictability. I say ‘perceived’ because actually the world we live might not be as predictable as we think, and it can change quite dramatically. Ask anyone that’s gone through a natural disaster. We go to bed assuming that the world we wake up in will be the same, yet one thing this virus has shown us is that our imagined future we predicted, has vaporised.

Humans are actually very good at adapting. But with the world pandemic, suddenly our certainty of an imagined future has been shattered. The world has changed rapidly in a very short space of time. And with this change, all sorts of challenges have been presented. I know that social isolation for some has been very challenging depending on their circumstances. Almost everyone has had to adapt their way of living in some way. Some more drastically than others. And we don’t know when or how this will change.

We are faced with uncertainly.

We suddenly lack autonomy over planning what we do with ourselves and our future.

We feel less safe, because of course we are less safe now. This virus is very unpredictable from person to person in the way it affects individuals. It is a potentially life-threatening virus.

And so how do we understand this anxiety?

Our brains generally do a great job of keeping us safe. You’re here and I’m here because our brains evolved to efficiently scan for real and perceived dangers. So if a sabre-tooth tiger was rustling in the bushes, we would know, and we would run. It is the fight or flight response. And it worked great in the days when there were sabre-tooth tigers around. It kept us alive. Yet these days however, there are less tigers walking around, and less actual physical threats to our lives. Instead there are more threats to our social status, our financial stability and of course now, our health. And so, our mind scans for these threats and presents us with imagined scenarios of our future.

In this modern-day life, we imagine a lot of threats that cause us worry. The way our brain works means that threats are prioritised over any other processing, and the brain detects threats quicker than anything else. We then experience this fight or flight response before a job interview, speaking in public, or before a first date. And actually this internal response is less helpful in these situations. In other words, whilst it was beneficial to have the fight or flight response in times of real physical danger, it doesn’t benefit us to be sweating and shaking while we are on our first date, or trying to give a speech!

These perceived threats are in the mind. Interestingly, the body doesn’t distinguish between a real and an imagined threat. So if you think about something bad happening in your future, your body responds as if that is happening now. It works the same with other imaginings too. Try it out for yourself. Try imagining your favourite food. If you imagine holding your favourite food in your hand, on a fork or spoon or whatever. Imagine the look, the smell, the texture, and finally the taste. Most people notice that if they engage in this exercise they are salivating. But where’s the food? Just in your mind. Yet your body responded in preparation for the real event. And so your mind can shape how you feel.

The mind and body do this with anxiety too. Imagine that you had to give a talk in front of hundreds of people. For most, this would produce more than a little nervousness. Again, if you really imagine this you might notice some feelings of anxiety in the body.

Anxiety is a future related concept. From a mindfulness point of view, we tend to think of anxiety as a projection of an imagined idea, onto the present moment. And when we really grasp that notion in a deep way, it allows us to recognise our anxiety as just that. Anxiety.

Mark Twain famously said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Researchers did a fascinating study where they found that labelling the feeling of anxiety as ‘anxiety’, actually reduced the intensity of the emotion. I think it’s quite understandable to fear anxiety and this has been referred to as ‘fear of fear’. Labelling it, seems to take away some of that fear. It almost seems to put it in it’s place.

With this notion, some people might notice that some of the distress we go through in life comes from our imagination, rather than our reality. Wiz Khalifa said that worrying is like walking around with an umbrella waiting for it to rain.

Researchers at Harvard found that on average our mind wanders 47% of the time. That’s almost half of our lives when we are not focused on what is right in front of us. And for some, a lot of those mind wanderings will be around an anxious future.

With mindfulness we start to recognise when our thoughts are taking us away from this present moment. We can then recognise the peace we have right here, right now, in this moment. This gives us more choice. Do we engage with the thoughts of the future? Or do we focus on the here and now?

Mindfulness is about connecting with the present moment, however that moment may be for us. So the present moment may be a pleasant one, unpleasant, or even quite neutral. And we can focus on something outside of us, (the sun on our face, the gentle breeze, the words of a loved one, or the sound of the cars driving by). Or we can focus on something inside of us, (an ache or pain or other sensation, or a feeling in the body, or perhaps on a thought).

So how do we manage our anxiety when it comes to the threat of Covid-19?

If you are feeling stressed or anxious then you might be aware of this mainly either through a physical sensation such as butterflies in your stomach, a restlessness, or perhaps feeling short of breath. Or for you, anxiety may be something you experience more in your mind like racing thoughts, disturbing images or not being able to concentrate.

If you struggle to actually notice how the anxiety presents itself, I might ask you, how do you know you’re feeling anxious right now?

Or I might ask, what inside of yourself tells you, you’re anxious?

That might help you to locate the anxiety for yourself.

You can then notice that anxiety, and just label it as anxiety.

The thing to realise is that the future your mind is imagining, may or may not become a reality. In mindfulness, we are not in the business of questioning that. That is for other therapies. But what we do promote is the realisation that the imagining in your mind is just that. An imagining. It is not occurring in the here and now.

Then bring your attention to something that is in the here and now. Take a moment to focus on something inside or outside. It’s your choice. You might take a moment to feel your breath, or feel a sensation of anxiety. You might quickly find that your mind pulls you away from something in the present moment, and presents you again with something about a future that doesn’t yet exist. It’s the nature of the mind to do this. Being present is not our habitual nature. But it does get easier the more we practice.

Then, bring your attention back to something you can reach out and touch now. Something real. Take a breath and continue your day with a sense of presence, and maybe even a sense of peace in the present moment.

You can access some free recordings on mindfulness for anxiety here: https://poolemindfulness.co.uk/freeaudio