Feeling Anxious, Irritated and Quick to Anger?
You’re stressed. You are not alone. We’re all stressed. We’re dealing with something we’ve never faced before. Something frightening that has turned our lives upside down. On top of the normal stresses, most of us are already dealing.
So, yes, of course, you’re feeling more anxious, irritable, and anger more easily.
That’s what happens when we exceed the level of our stress tolerance. Some people have a higher level of stress tolerance than others. So some are less stressed. Others are more stressed. We also each have coping strategies we employ when under excessive stress. Some coping strategies are more effective than others and some people’s situation makes this less stressful than it does for you.
Each of us also has our own way of reacting to stress. There are those who hold everything inside and seem unfazed by what’s happening around them. Then there is Mark Sloan, quoted above. Like 15-20% of the population, his genetic make-up means he’s a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), who is simply more easily overwhelmed by their high levels of emotional sensitivity than those not wired in such a way.
So don’t compare yourself to anyone else.
The fact is that a huge stressor like a world pandemic can out-stress our coping strategies and the anxiety, irritation, tears and anger we usually manage just spills out. It’s OK. It’s just the way our brains and bodies work.
Please be compassionate to yourself and others.
This is the most important thing we can do to get through this. Be compassionate for yourself. And be compassionate to your loved ones too. Like you, like all of us, they are stressed out and will probably be more anxious, irritated and angry, sometimes even about small things.
Being compassionate means saying to yourself and your loved ones what I’m saying to you now; what Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York and other caring leaders are saying to us all.
This is a really difficult time. It is hard. I’m so sorry you have to deal with all this. You’ve never faced anything like this before. You don’t have anyone to turn to who has faced something like this. Your grandparents and great grandparents lived through the Spanish Flu Epidemic, the Great Depression and World War II. These were catastrophic events like this but they’re not with us now.
There’s no one you can ask “How did you handle this? What did you do? No one already knows how to do this. So you’re not alone. We’re all going through this together, learning as we go. And we’ll make it. This will end. We don’t know when but it will end.
Still, we don’t have to settle for being overly anxious, crying and irritable. There are things we can do and need to do to reduce our stress.
Here are some ideas.
1st be informed. We’re fighting two enemies: the virus and fear. Fear makes it all the worse. It leaves us feeling helpless and leads to poor decisions. The best remedy for fear, as Governor Cuomo has said, is accurate information. When we know the actual situation we can know what to do and what not to do. It prevents us from making up frightening scenarios. So stay informed from reputable knowledgeable authorities that tell it like it is.
Being well informed of the facts helps us operate from evidence and not from emotion. The facts paint an ugly picture. It’s bad and it will be with us for an indefinite period of time. But facing the reality of just how bad this pandemic is, enables you to calibrate yourself and your expectations so you can plan for your time, energy and emotional reserve. Planning for this is not like planning for a weekend campout. It’s more like planning for an indeterminate stay in a war-torn foreign country.
Thinking of ourselves as warriors fighting a war with a lethal enemy prevents us from feeling like helpless victims.
But, don’t dwell on all the awful news that doesn’t relate to you. Unless you feel better knowing such things, you don’t really need to know the details of how bad it is in other cities or other countries, or the horrid details health facilities face, or the ongoing political battles in Washington. We only need to know what our situation is now, what it’s expected to be and the rules and steps we are to take to protect ourselves and those we love as best we can.
Knowing what to do, even if we don’t like it, is empowering. For us here in California, that means staying at home other than for essential needs, not having anyone come by to see us, not taking the kids to playdates or visits at grandma and grandpa’s, taking precautions while shopping and practicing impeccable sanitary hygiene.
Stay grounded in the present. The best way to keep fear and anxiety at bay is to focus on the present moment, your immediate situation, whatever you’re doing right now. What is your immediate situation? Are you ill now? Is anyone in your family ill now? Do you have enough food now? Do you have a supply of the medications you need? Are your kids respecting social distancing? Etc. If there are things you need to do right now, that’s where to focus first.
Otherwise, focus on whatever you’re busy doing not what you’re not doing. If you’re taking a shower, for example, focus on the details of that experience. If you’re making lunch, focus on the details of that experience. And so on. Keeping busy makes this possible.
You may be plenty busy but if you’re not, this is a good time to do some of the things you’ve been wanting or needing to do but haven’t had time for. That project you’ve never finished, for example. That person you’ve been meaning to call. I hear a lot of people are starting that book they always wanted to write.
Stay in touch. Even though we can’t be with people in person, it’s important not to be isolated. Research has shown that isolation is as bad for our health as alcoholism, obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to stay in touch without being together. We have phones, email, text, video chatting, and social media.
So make a list of non-toxic family and friends, including perhaps those you’ve lost touch with over the years. Call, text, email or chat with some of them today and every day.
We don’t even need to skip holiday gatherings, birthday parties and even the group gatherings you miss. AA is doing online meetings. Churches are offering online services. With apps like Zoom, Skype, Face Time, Facebook Chat and others we can celebrate and recreate and groups of others we miss.
Practice gratitude. Focus on what you have, not what you don’t. Think of the ways you are blessed. Are you well now? Do you have supportive friends or loved ones? Are they OK? Were you able to enjoy a nice meal? Do you have a good show to watch? Had a nice chat with a friend? And every day we can be especially grateful for the nurses, doctors, first responders and store and delivery personnel who are risking their lives to keep us safe and well. They are our best who are facing the worst. Thank them whenever you get a chance.
Let it go. “I can’t do all this.” I know. This situation can be really exhausting. On top of all the things you already do day to day, now there’s disinfecting the surfaces in your home, sanitizing your hands, waiting in lines for food, finding what you need is sold out, having to go back another time, wearing masks and gloves when you go out, figuring out how to live without an income, coming up creative ideas for bored kids who want to be with their friends … to name a few possibilities.
So chances are you can’t get it all done in a day. For your own health and sanity, you’ve probably got to let some things go, at least for now. This is particularly hard for perfectionists and super-conscientious people who are used to managing life well. This whole challenge is a mess. It’s not all neat and tidy. Managing as well as you did may not be possible right now.
When you haven’t been able to get to something that isn’t vital, let it go. “But I just wanted to ….” “But need to ….” I know, but sometimes you just can’t. That’s OK. Give yourself a break. You can only do what you can do. If it matters, chances are you’ll find time to get to it later. It’s not going away.
Cool it. Having more time to be with our loved ones at home can be an upside to this crisis. But being cooped up in the household with others 24/7 is intense, uncertain times when we’re all a bit irritable, frustrated and stressed can be really challenging. It’s so easy to push each other’s buttons. Rile each other’s feathers. Elicit each other worst behavior. When this happens, as soon as you notice you’re reacting in ways that make matters worse, let it go.
Whatever was said or done isn’t worth expending your already hard-pressed time and energy to pursue further. As one of my clients put it, “I don’t have the energy to get into a fight. It’s too exhausting.” Anyway, you probably know where what comes next if pursued further and it’s not good. So walk away if need be. Go outside, take a breath and let it go.
And, please, please, if it was another person who started this disruption, let them step away too. Do not pursue them. Let them get themselves back together. Try to arrange or re-arrange your space to the extent possible so each person has a place to withdraw to.
Apologize, forgive and forget. “I’m sorry.” Two simple words go a long way to assuage tense moments when we’re not pleased with how we’ve behaved. In return when others fall short of their best behavior unless it involved bodily injury, forgive them with a simple “I understand you’re frustrated and unhappy. I’m sorry. This is a hard time. Is there anything I can do to help you handle this better.”
If bodily injury is involved, it should be reported. If possible go to be with someone else who is well and following distancing guidelines.
Establish and stick to your routines. Routines save time and energy. Studies show that making decisions, even little ones, takes a lot of energy. Dithering over decisions saps our energy. With routines, we just do what we’ve decided to do when and how we decided to do it. They enable us to automatically take care of the little necessary maintenance things we don’t want to be bothered to keep in mind every day.
Routines also give structure to the day. They also give those who don’t like to change a sense of security. This is especially true for kids, but without school or jobs, our trusted routines aren’t there. So keep those you can still follow in place. Get up as usual, for example, get dressed, as usual, maintain our daily hygiene, as usual, have meals, as usual, go to bed as usual. Do schoolwork during regular school hours. If you’re working from home, work your usual hours. It’s so tempting to think of this as vacation time, but it isn’t.
Of course, some pleasant rituals and routines have to be restructured or replaced. If weekends were a time for brisk basketball games with friends, trips to the gym or visits with grandparents, it is important to find new pleasant social and exercise activities. Otherwise, days can get boring and there won’t be anything to look forward to.
Disinfect your brain and boost your immune system
The best way to prevent getting this virus yourself is to fortify your immune system so your mind and body are clean, clear, strong and healthy. Dr. Daniel Amen offers some useful tips we need to pay close attention to for our brain health, many of which we already know:
- Drink ½ your weight I water.
– Eat healthy foods in place of processed junk food.
– Exercise daily.
– Get 7-8 hours of sleep.
- Cut down on coffee, alcohol, and nicotine.
He also offers some valuable, less commonly known ideas:
- Disinfect your thoughts. His research with SPECT scans shows that “Whenever you have a negative thought, a fearful thought, an anxious thought, an angry thought, your brain releases chemicals that make you feel bad that actually can decrease the effectiveness of your immune system, but whenever you have a happy thought, a hopeful thought, a grateful thought, it strengthens your body.”
- Practice acts of kindness.
Science has linked random acts of kindness to the release of dopamine and oxytocin, chemical messengers in the brain that bring good, warm feelings and get us motivated. In addition, it’s shown to boost oxytocin and serotonin, both needed mood and enable clear thinking.
Especially don’t take seriously those thoughts that pester you after 10 PM. If they need addressing in the morning you’ll be far more able to handle them when you’re rested and not in bed. Take regular 15-second breaks to decompress and clear your head. Longer if you can.
- This tip one is mine – Go outdoors. There’s extensive research that proves what we’ve all experienced, being in a natural environment has an amazingly beneficial effect on our mind and body.
- This one is from me too. Spend time playing, petting and looking into the eyes of your pets. Many studies have shown that pets can alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Call it the Pet Effect. Interactions with animals even help people manage long-term mental health conditions. When you pet or gaze into your dog’s eyes, your brains release a chemical called oxytocin, the hormone that promotes feelings of love, bonding, and well-being. It’s even being tested as an anti-anxiety drug. It has long been known as the warm, fuzzy hormone that promotes feelings of love, social bonding, and well-being. And your dog feels the same way when you show them
Wow, I hope some of these ideas will help to make this crisis more bearable. Let me close first with a reminder for Governor Cuomo. “This will end and we will make it through together.”
Finally, let me end by sharing the motto of my dear friend and colleague Dr. Jessica Schairer has adopted.
Stay calm and carry on.
If you are interested in any subject on this site, please contact me.
(c) 2020 Sarah Anne Edwards