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What are you worrying about? Anxiety in a pandemic and why it’s better to be an open water swimmer than a hurdler

We’re all worrying about something, aren’t we?
There’s always something that’s outside of our control. It’s a big old world out there and there’s a lot that falls into the category of ‘The Great Unknown’. The pandemic and other recent events have cracked open the idea of the world we thought we knew and suddenly there seem to be so many more possibilities. And not ones of the nice, happy variety.

All of this is, of course, a breeding ground for anxiety. How could we not be anxious during a pandemic? None of us has lived through something like this before. And while we hope for a better year this year, the world has fundamentally changed. It’s not even just Covid 19. Brexit, Trump and the biggest one, climate change, mean that the world feels a lot scarier and a lot bleaker than it did just 5 or 10 years ago. There’s a lot we can worry about. 

How can we cope?

By looking at the way we think about anxiety itself and our coping mechanisms.

Hurdling through life  

Without knowing it, many of us used to approach anxiety in the manner of a hurdler. 

We feel anxious. We attribute the anxiety to a particular ‘thing’ (whether that be a problem at work, a public speaking engagement, a health concern, a relationship issue). We work to overcome or get through that particular, troubling hurdle. After we surmount that one, the anxiety subsides for a bit. 

But here’s the thing – it always comes back. Another hurdle appears. Often as soon as we’ve made it over the previous one. And so, barely catching our breath, we start sprinting towards the next one. And so on and so forth. 

The problem is that the rules of the game have now changed. There are broader issues at play. Our anxieties (that used to often be about contained, discrete issues) are now more wide ranging, long-lasting and amorphous. The world seems a scarier place to be than perhaps ever before. And that’s not going away anytime soon. So, the hurdler’s approach to dealing with anxiety no longer works. 

Heading for open water

How would an open water swimmer address anxiety and how does that differ from the ‘hurdling’ approach?

Well, the important thing about open water swimming is that it’s more experiential and less goal-driven than hurdling (generally speaking). That tells us something in relation to anxiety. Because, rather than attempting to run and ‘achieve’ your way out of fear, the best way to deal with it is to learn how to be in the discomfort of it, to sit with it, work towards accepting it. To be in the moment, to take in the scenery. 

Think of it this way. The physical symptoms of anxiety are a little bit like when open water swimmers first dip into icy cold water – it feels really unnatural and your instinct is ‘there’s something badly wrong here, I need to get the hell out of here’. With anxiety, this causes us to either fight it or to avoid the situation. When we’re fighting it, we beat ourselves up, we tell ourselves ‘we’re too sensitive’ or ‘I’m overreacting’. Alternatively, we turn to avoidance. We can avoid anxiety in all sorts of ways – withdrawing into ourselves, not going out, not seeing people, drinking too much alcohol, numbing out with food, sex or even excessive work. This is the emotional equivalent of getting out of the water and going to find a lovely warm towel. It feels comforting in the short-term but ultimately you don’t achieve the thing you came to do. You just postpone the issue to another day. 

The more we fight or avoid anxiety, the more it digs its little claws in even further. 

Conversely, the more we can accept it as a natural part of life and something we all suffer from, the more compassion we can have for ourselves for having it, the more manageable it becomes. Pathologising anxiety is unhelpful. 

What works?

How do we sit with anxiety? How do we come to accept it?

Well, being mindful helps. 

What do I mean? 

Simple things like noticing when the physical symptoms are arising and saying to yourself ‘I am noticing there is anxiety’ rather than ‘I am anxious’. Sounds silly doesn’t it? But thinking in this way creates an almost imperceptible gap between you and the anxiety. That gap is important. You start to create a slight distancing and a recognition that the anxiety is not all of you. 

Keeping your attention on the moment, what’s around you, what you can see, what you can hear, what you can touch, all these things bring you right into the moment. This is helpful. 

Notice your disaster movie mind skating off into pessimism about what the future may bring. Just don’t buy a ticket and settle in for the whole film. 

Think of your anxieties as like clouds passing overhead. They do pass. 

Keep your focus on getting through the next minute. And then the next minute after that. And the one after that. 

12 step fellowships have some useful advice. Their focus is always on taking life one day at a time. Whatever arises in one 24 hour period is always manageable. What’s unmanageable are our projections about what may lie ahead and how we may cope (or not). 

Keep plodding on and taking life in 24 hour chunks. Hell, on bad days, take it in 1 hour chunks. And celebrate yourself for plodding on when anxiety attempts to derail you. It is not a weakness to feel anxiety in an uncertain and sometimes bleak world. What is powerful is to keep plodding on in your own imperfect way, in spite of being bloody scared. 

And finally, remember the open water swimmer. If you stay in the freezing cold water, even for a minute, if you can get through that first really difficult bit, it starts to become much easier. So try not to fight your fear. Good stuff may lie on the other side.

If you’d like to have some therapy or coaching to talk about anxiety, get in touch with us on info@carvalhotherapy.com