Combat Coronavirus Anxiety with These Tips

Emma Frankart Henterly
ehenterly@columbusmonthly.com

With so much uncertainty in the world right now, we’re all dealing with elevated levels of anxiety. Whether you’re stressed about work, money, health or a combination of factors that stem from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important that you take steps to mitigate that stress and protect your mental well-being.

Carly Mesnick, program manager of Mount Carmel’s Crime and Trauma Assistance Program, is encouraging her clients and others to, first, create a sense of routine or structure in their days, and second, make sure that routine includes “something for wellness every single day.” She especially recommends spending time outside, even if it’s just sitting in the backyard or going for a no-contact drive—but a walk around the block is even better, she says.

We turned to Mesnick and several other local experts for their suggestions and techniques to help support mental well-being during these chaotic times.

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Mindfulness

Maryanna Klatt, a professor with OSU’s Wexner Medical Center who researches stress, its effects and ways to mitigate it, relies on mindfulness as one of several modalities in a program she developed to mitigate stress. For many of us, though, mindfulness is a vague concept that can be hard to grasp.

“The way I would define mindfulness is awareness, waking up to how you’re moving through your days,” Klatt says. “That’s really the heart of mindfulness … noticing something and how it makes you feel.”

She recommends paying attention to when your anxiety—about the coronavirus, the economy or anything else—peaks. “If you become aware of what time of day it is … that the anxiety grabs you, then that’s the time of day to do some little practice.” She often recommends one known as 4-7-8 breathing, wherein one inhales through the nose for a count of four, holds it for a count of seven and then exhales through the mouth for a count of eight.

“It’s a really effective way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system,” Klatt notes. “It’s amazing how quickly your body drops down into being more relaxed, more out of your head and into your body.”

Breathing is a key mindfulness practice for Elizabeth Miller, a yoga therapist who runs Reden, a yoga studio offering classes and private sessions for mental and physical wellness. She describes the breath in four parts: the inhalation, the retention, the exhalation and the suspension. Focusing on those four parts while connecting them to a physical body part is a simple, accessible mindfulness technique, she says, even for those whose minds tend to wander. “Keep bringing your attention back, again and again, to that same recognition of that breath pattern. And then eventually … all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Oh, I do actually feel a little bit better.’ ”

Miller also recommends repeating a mantra.

“We all have a mantra going, whether we know it or not,” she says. It can be a traditional Sanskrit mantra, such as the ubiquitous “om” heard in many yoga classes, an English phrase or even a prayer from your religious tradition. “Where our attention goes, there our thoughts follow,” she explains, adding that mantra-chanting can help distract the mind from thoughts of doom and gloom to ones of positivity and encouragement.

Exercise

It’s no secret that regular exercise is good for mental health, just as it is for physical health. Exercise releases endorphins—the “feel-good” hormones that activate the body’s opiate receptors and act as an analgesic.

With gyms and fitness centers closed, options for working out are a little different than what you might be used to. When weather permits, go for a bike ride, a jog or a brisk walk—whatever works for your ability. Being outdoors in the sunshine has an added mood-boosting effect, so don’t pass up the opportunity.

“I’m a big fan of physical exercise in general, not just asanas [yoga postures],” says Miller. “Go for a walk, then do some simple stretching.”

When outdoor exercise isn’t possible, a variety of options remain, thanks to the abundance of the internet. Many local yoga studios are hosting virtual classes online, and YouTube is full of at-home workout options that require little to no extra equipment. If all else fails, take a few laps up and down your stairs for a quarantine-approved cardio routine.

Creativity

Think of it as exercise for the mind—doing something creative engages your brain and can have mood-lifting effects.

“When we’re engaged creatively, it’s very stimulating,” says Harry Warner, a counselor and associate director of outreach with Ohio State University’s Counseling and Consultation Service. “It can be distracting, because it’s grounding, and it can bring our focus into something.”

Those who already make creative expression part of their self-care routine likely have their favorite supplies—paints and canvas, embroidery thread, musical instruments—on hand. For those who are delving into the creative arts for the first time, stores like Joann Fabrics and Michael’s remain open for buy-online, pick-up-curbside orders.

And if you don’t have an artistic bone in your body? Never fear. “It could be something as small as putting a puzzle together,” Warner says. “[Anything that] gives a groundedness and focus to our lives.”

Grounding

Grounding is a mental-health practice that several local experts mentioned in their recommendations. Grounding has a number of definitions, depending on who you ask and their experience, but it boils down to ridding the body of excess energy and calming the emotions.

Janice George, a private-practice psychotherapist with decades of experience, uses tools taught in yoga to help her clients, particularly those dealing with trauma. Trauma, she says, “is getting reactivated for people right now” due to the coronavirus pandemic. She uses a specific application of deep relaxation to help clients “get safely anchored in their bodies so they can work through whatever their issues are from a safe place of being in their body, rather than just trying to think it through with the mind, which usually doesn’t work,” she says. To achieve that relaxed state, she turns to grounding. You can find a guided grounding exercise in the sidebar on the right.

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To ground yourself, lie down or find a comfortable seat and follow psychotherapist Janice George’s guided meditation, as told to this writer:

Feel your feet—stretch and scrunch your toes, rock your feet until you actually feel sensation in your feet. Breathe in, all the way down to your feet. Of course your lungs are in your chest, but when you breathe, the oxygen goes down to your feet. So breathe into your feet and start to feel deeper, beyond your feet to the floor, maybe all the way to the ground below you. If it feels safe, invoke an image of a tree growing roots. Drop your roots as deeply as you can, until you feel anchored and safe.

Now let the breath start to bring that up, just like a tree’s roots bring up nourishment. When that energy starts to move up, breathe it up into the legs. Breathe into the pelvis, and pause here. Again, take the time to feel the sensation in your butt and low back—squeeze and relax, rock side to side a little, start to feel that sensation and the support beneath you. Now direct the breath here, to the pelvis, belly, low back, hips. This is like the base of a tree, the foundation, the widest part that supports what’s above and what’s below. Breathe really wide into your foundation, so you can feel really supported.

Next, draw that energy up through the spine. Remember that you have a strong core; there’s an inner strength in that strong outer body. Breathe up through the chest and again, pause at the shoulders. Roll them up, back and down a few times, to ensure you’re not scrunching them up under your ears. Roll your shoulder blades back into your back, and if you’re not already lying down, rest your back onto a support—let that back body relax.

Now breathe that energy up and along your arms. Notice your armpits—when people are stressed, their armpits get really tight, and that constricts the breath. Breathe into your armpits and relax there. Then the breath moves up to the neck and throat, and pause again at the jaw, which is one of the last places where we release tension. Open and close your mouth a few times, perhaps rest the tongue at the bottom of the mouth to help induce the relaxation response.

Now breathe up through the nose, nostrils, ear canals. Pause at the eyes and let them softly close, Let your eyes rest in the back of your skull. And then breathe up through the crown of the head, sort of like the branches of a tree. Here it’s like we’re moving out and into the fresh air, fresh oxygen. That life force energy cascades down and mingles with the grounded energy coming up from your feet.

Take a few rounds of breaths here. If, on the exhale, something is ready to be released, I invite you to let it go and let the earth recycle it. Similarly, if something needs investigation, it can be investigated.

“I have people practice this every day,” George says. That way, “you could even be in the grocery store, and you could pause and feel your feet [on the ground] and breathe. If we’re practicing it regularly, then we can use it in any situation.”

Grounding Exercise