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As the days get shorter and nights longer, the delta variant of the coronavirus is still very much with us, sad to say. It’s already clear the next couple of seasons won’t be the “life as usual” we all hoped for.
“People have a lot of frustration. People have been doing this a long time, and they thought by now things would be in a different position,” says Vickie Mays, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
We’re likely to see pockets of outbreaks and increased restrictions again with every surge in local cases and hospitalizations, says Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease professor at the University of Michigan. And that’s leaving some of us feeling a little anxious, to say the least.
So what are some ways we can manage our anxiety as the days get a little darker and we pull the masks back on?
The good news is that this winter we know what masking up and other restrictions look like and we know how they can make us feel. Here are a few tools our experts recommend to help us deal with it all:
Reframe how you think of anxiety
Reframing can be a valuable tool. It takes feelings or emotions you have and turns them into something useful. For anxiety, learn exactly why you feel anxious and accept that it’s totally normal. New York University neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki explains that uncertainty provokes anxiety — that sweaty, stomach-dropping feeling you get when you are on high alert — which is a natural stress response system of the body.
Suzuki, who is the author of a book coming out this month called Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion, says instead of approaching anxiety as a negative emotion that must be suppressed, we should think of it as a superpower that motivates us to act. It helped our ancestors escape lions, she says. It’s that “quick hit of cortisol,” along with adrenaline, that helps a mother lift a car off her toddler.
Suzuki also suggests changing your “what if” list into a “to do” list. Your “what if” list is the list you make in your head about all the things that could go wrong — like what if I can’t get on a plane to see my mom this winter? Instead of sitting there stewing, do something when you feel worried, says Suzuki. Start by making a list of actions you can take, for example, to ensure you stay connected with your far-flung family this winter: Host a video chat, write a letter, plan to take an online cooking class together.
Learn to breathe yourself calm
If you find yourself feeling anxious or angry, activate your parasympathetic nervous system. “The secret is deep breathing,” Suzuki says, and you can do it wherever you are. Inhale deeply while you count to 4, and then exhale while you count to 4. Repeat until calm.
There are many apps that can help you learn to breathe more slowly, including Calm and Insight Timer. Stop, Breathe & Think Kids includes one exercise in which you trace your fingers up as you breathe in, hold for a second at the top and then trace your fingers down as you breathe out. It’s called five finger breathing, and it works for grown-ups too!
Move your body
You can fight anxiety with physical movement. Feeling anxious all the time, as many people have since the coronavirus pandemic began, has a lot of long-term health implications, Suzuki says. It “can cause everything from heart disease, digestive problems like ulcers, long-term reproductive problems” and even damage to brain cells.
Exercise, even just 10 minutes a day, makes a difference. “Every time you move your body, it’s like you’re giving your brain a wonderful bubble bath of neurochemicals, including dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline,” Suzuki says. “These are the neurochemicals that naturally decrease anxiety, stress levels and depression levels.”
Research shows exercise can ease panic attacks and mood and sleep disorders too, and a study in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry found that joining a team sport might be even better than hitting the gym alone.
Planning to exercise is half the battle, Seattle personal trainer Salina Duggan told NPR recently, and if you can’t go outside because of the weather, it might feel even more challenging. But it doesn’t have to be. Get a yoga mat and put it near your workspace.
Connect with others
Being with other people is a critical part of maintaining our mental health and something many of us either stopped doing or moved online during the initial period of tight COVID-19 restrictions last year.
But this winter will not be like the last one, Malani says, “because we have safe, highly effective vaccines.” She says the advice she gives everyone is the same that she gives to her own parents: “Make sure the people that you’re spending time with are fully vaccinated.”
Yes, breakthrough infections among people who have been vaccinated can happen, she says, and we still don’t know enough yet about how often, “but it’s really unlikely” that you’ll get seriously ill if you hang out with other vaccinated people.
So go on vacation, visit your parents, see the friend you haven’t seen in a while, she advises, but take precautions and keep an eye on what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends and how high the transmission rate is where you’re going. Consider keeping a mask on indoors when you make those visits, especially if you’re going to be around small children who can’t be vaccinated or around people who have compromised immune systems.
“The risk isn’t zero, but it’s offset by the benefits,” Malani says.
Find a ritual that’s meaningful to you, and maybe even share it
Long before the pandemic, Suzuki searched for ways to incorporate ritual in meditation to soothe her own anxiety. She found it when she participated in a tea ceremony in Bali, Indonesia, in 2015. In the ceremony, a monk silently brewed and poured several rounds of tea into handmade ceramic tea bowls for guests.
“It felt like I finally had a great excuse to just be present and enjoy the breeze and warmth of the bowl of tea and the reflections that I could see on the surface,” she says. Since then, she repeats the silent tea meditation herself nearly every morning and, during the pandemic, has shared it on Zoom as a way to connect with friends.
Accept that our new normal may be abnormal
As much as we wish it away, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is here to stay for a while, and we have to find ways to manage our risks and take care of our mental health for the long haul.
“For some of us, we are still searching for this magical moment when everything is going to come back to normal,” Malani says. “And, you know, unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen.”