Hi there. I’m Anna Mathur, mum of three (ages 1, 3, 5), Psychotherapist and author of Mind over Mother – Every Mum’s guide to worry and anxiety in the first year.
Well, hasn’t life changed so quickly? One week we’re getting our heads around social distancing, and the next it seems like a lot of the world has shut down altogether. I don’t know about you, but here, emotions are running high, and there is little of our ‘normal’ that hasn’t been touched by sudden change. We are trying to navigate our way through this time of uncertainty. Our usual go-to coping mechanisms have been challenged, and our support network suddenly lives in the palm of our hands instead of around coffee cups and play dates.
As a Psychotherapist, I am so passionate about supporting people through challenge and uncertainty, and this is a time I have had to really lean on all the tips I spend my professional life sharing with others. They really do help us find anchors and peace within the stormy times.
So, here are five ways to help you stay grounded during times of uncertainty:
1. Be kind to you
Firstly, I encourage you to have compassion for yourself. Often we can be quite critical and strict with ourselves when we feel wobbly. We can try and compare our emotions away, telling ourselves that we shouldn’t feel how we do as so many others have it harder in some way. And whilst it’s really helpful to bring in perspective and gratitude, all feelings are valid regardless of what they are or how much sense they make. Let them come, let them go. Just as you offer comfort to your child when they feel worried or upset, when we feel overwhelmed, we need compassion and guidance from ourselves too.
It’s hard because it’s hard.
It’s challenging because it’s challenging.
It’s worrying because it’s worrying.
Whatever your experience, whatever is causing your anxiety, shaming and berating ourselves keeps us stuck. Not everyone will relate to your experience (although many will), but it doesn’t mean that your anxiety is less valid or your feelings less valuable and worth addressing. If you find yourself feeling frustrated, consider how you would reassure a friend, and try to use that supportive and understanding voice towards yourself.
2. Halt overthinking
Feelings of anxiety are triggered when we focus on negative, future unknowns and uncertainties. And aren’t there many to focus on at the moment? The difficult thing is that we aren’t creating stories about alien invasions; they tend to be fears based in potential realities that have not, or may not happen. What’s more, we are likely feeling stressed navigating this new unknown at home with our families, without the usual supportive social diary, so be kind to yourself as you tread this-untrodden ground. You’re working overtime – mentally, emotionally, physically.
The more we think about a fearful scenario, the more our body and nervous system will respond with physical symptoms of anxiety (such as increased heart rate, stress hormones, panic attacks). We can interrupt this process by stopping the whirlwind of our thoughts in their tracks.
My current favourite technique is to tell myself that ‘I’ll cross that bridge if I get to it’, and recall some of the times in my life where I have overcome what felt insurmountable when initially faced with it. I find this really empowering, reminding myself that I am stronger than I feel!
There are many other techniques that can help halt overthinking by shifting our focus from the unknowns of the future, to the realities of the present moment. Here are some of my favourite techniques. Some are brilliant to do with your child when they feel anxious:
- Count backwards from 100 in 3’s.
- Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
- Take a walk outside, breathe deeply and pay close attention to the things you see
- If you have any physical feelings of anxiety, do ten rounds of grounding breaths to calm your nervous system. Breathe in deeply for four, and steadily exhale for a count of 6-8 (dependent on what feels most comfortable)
- Utilising a guided meditation app such as ‘Headspace’ or ‘Calm’
Use these techniques as soon as you feel your mind begin to overthink or catastrophise. Practice them as you fall asleep. Use them when you don’t need them so that when you do, they feel familiar and instinctive.
Limiting your exposure to news will help with anxiety as too much exposure can fuel overthinking. Just as we know that when we feel concerned about a symptom in our child, it’s much better to go to someone who has professional insight or experience, than to scroll through reams of forum threads, often telling of worst case scenarios (who bothers writing about the non-eventful stuff?).
Whether you are researching new versions of the same headlines, or scrolling to make sense of a physical symptom, pause, and ask yourself what you’re going to gain. Knowledge isn’t power when we are overwhelming ourselves with it. Searching for too much information, or searching in the wrong places can be conflicting and confusing. Seek the facts over opinions, and don’t overwhelm yourself with either.
3. Find space and comfort
Whilst the physical space that is available to us will be limited significantly to normal, ‘space’ is going be harder to come across. I know the house is likely to be busier than normal so you have to be more creative as you find ways to create personal space and quiet away from the noise.
Perhaps you agree a set time in the day where you take it in turns to have half an hour on uninterrupted quiet, set your alarm so that you wake to stillness. You might find it helpful to retreat to a particular corner of your home and put your headphones on.
I don’t think we realise how much small gestures of touch positively impact our mental health until they aren’t possible. A hug, a handshake, the brush of an arm or the pat of a back – all work to make us feel accepted and appreciated. For some, the lack of touch is going to feel prominent. If appropriate (strictly following guidelines relevant for you), seek more hugs with kids or drag the cat upon your lap as you watch TV.
4. Increase Self-care
For so long, our main excuse for not engaging in self-care has been that we are too busy, our diaries are too full. But now, even though your home might feel like a hive of constant activity, some of the busyness has been stripped away. What’s more, times of uncertainty demand more of our emotional resources as we try to stay calm and steady for our families. Therefore it’s an important time to consider implementing more acts of self-care.
Self-care isn’t just for your own benefit; it’s for the benefit of those who are around you too. For so long, I had thought of self-care as a selfish indulgence until I recognised how my family enjoy me much more when I’ve invested something back into myself. I’m less likely to feel overwhelmed and irritable! Start with the small things, meeting your own basic needs of hunger, thirst and even going to the loo when you first need it rather than hopping around the kitchen. Check in with yourself often, ask yourself how you’re feeling and what you need – take a step towards meeting that need if you can.
5. Adopt a mantra
Personally, I find it really helpful to have a phrase, sentence or ‘mantra’ that I can recall at times of anxiety or stress. I find it quite anchoring and comforting.
My current favourite mantra is: ‘Everything is okay now. And ‘now’ is the only thing that is real’.
Here are some other ideas:
I let go of fear
I return to now
I am here
Feelings aren’t facts
A little pep talk
I just wanted to finish with a pep talk. I so wish I had the answers, but I don’t. So see this as a metaphorical hand on your shoulder. This is a tough time of unchartered territory. The ground on which you stand has been shaken and we are all stumbling around trying to find ways to navigate the constantly changing guidelines and rules. There is collective grief, grief for the things that are no longer as we know them, fear for the health of those we love. Be kind to yourself, there is no map. Lower your standards of what you ‘should’ be achieving. You will get into a new groove in time. The forced slower pace will become a new kind of normal, the and jarring sense of uncertainty and fear will blur. Focus on today, this moment. Use all the support mechanisms available to you. Anchor yourself in the things you know to be true so that they bring balance to the unanswered questions. It’s hard because it is hard. It’s tough, because it’s tough. But Mama, so are you.
If you are experiencing overwhelming levels of anxiety, or notice a strong link with trauma, please seek additional support. If isn’t the first time you have experienced it, it is worth addressing. Here are some websites or resources you may find helpful:
My Reframing Anxiety Course
Read details and reviews here.
This is a 3-week guided course you do at home, taking no more than 5-10 minutes per day. It addresses all types and levels of anxiety, including health anxiety. Use the discount code ra-save15 if finances are a hurdle for you.
A charity offering information and support for mental health. Read more about anxiety and how you can help those struggling here.
Find information on anxiety and facts on coronavirus here.
How can your doctor help you with anxiety? Find out more here.
A charity offering support for mental health, including a helpline and peer support. Find more here.