With an end to lockdown still some way off, this confinement and the uncertainty of our future is having an increasing impact on those who suffer anxiety. We’ve decided to extend this month’s Edit and spoke to Kate Buchanan, a counsellor and therapist well used to helping clients manage anxiety. With client sessions now carried out online via Skype or Zoom for those who are finding lockdown mentally and emotionally challenging, Kate explains what this will mean for many and what we can do to help combat these feelings of anxiety.
“About half of my clients are experiencing respite due to self-isolation at home. Without the relentless grind of a daily commute and constant sensory stimulation, they are finding some mental and emotional space to focus on the moment with more time to examine their inner world and sense of self.
For other clients, however, the effect of lockdown is sadly very different. Those with health anxiety are really struggling to manage their feelings of panic and a loss of control. For couples, being cooped up for 23 hours a day with a partner, possibly for the first time ever, is bringing out frustrations and irritations that have previously been swept under the carpet or wholly denied and avoided.
Of course, frontline workers and key workers are feeling very stressed and many are experiencing symptoms of anger. Online therapy is allowing a space for them to vent resentment, fear and pent up angst, once they get home from work. This counselling is much needed and most therapists are currently charging very little, if anything, to NHS staff.
Burying anger, anxiety and fear generally only makes things worse. We deflect or repress negative feelings because they feel dangerous and scary, but if we can find the time and energy to allow ourselves to process and articulate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, they lose some of their power. We realise that it is painful but not unbearable to face our feelings and that these moments do pass, leaving us with some relief.
If a friend or family member is feeling anxious, let them. Encourage them to express their feelings without any judgement or attempts to calm them down. Never tell them they are being irrational and do not try to problem solve for them. Disallowing feelings implies judgement and the resulting repression will keep their feelings buried where they fester until the next time they are triggered.
We can actively help our bodies to produce more of the ‘feel good’ hormone dopamine and increased endorphins. We can also act to lower cortisol and adrenaline, which are the flight or fight hormones associated with stress and danger. The key is to stimulate our vagus nerve – the longest nerve in the body that runs from our brain to all major organs. It’s the nerve that releases calming hormones. Scientific research has proved that certain methods can improve the vagal ‘tone’ and stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system.”
Despite the lack of space and privacy for many at home, there are some simple, quick and easy daily tasks that Kate is recommending to clients in order to help lower anxiety levels, and she shares some of these below.
- The part of the body where the vagus nerve is most accessible is the back of the throat so chanting, humming, gargling and singing immediately bring about a calming effect on the body. This is why joining a choir is uplifting for people experiencing depression. Just gargling and humming to yourself for a minute or two each morning and evening can help.
- The vagus nerve is stimulated by sudden cold. Plunge your face into a basin of cold water, go out into the cool night air, or just run your wrists under really cold water for a minute or two to quickly lower your body temperature.
- Deep muscle work and stretching help – this is why yoga and pilates are so good for calming us down. You do not need much space for these and there are many apps and podcasts that can lead you through a 10 minute session each day.
- We are allowed, if we can, to go out for an hour of exercise each day. This will stimulate the vagus nerve and release endorphins. If you are shielding or not that physically fit then a personal trainer friend recommends that marching on the spot and using your arms for 100 steps, twice a day, however slowly, will have a positive effect. If marching to music, all the better!
- Which leads onto laughter ... any humour we can find in these difficult days is to be relished, as laughter improves vagal tone. Actively seeking out a comedy show, funny Facebook posts, old Graham Norton YouTube excerpts, playing Charades … whatever or whoever makes you laugh, seek them out.
- Omega 3 fatty acids and bioacidophilus have been proven by studies in the USA to have a positive effect on brain chemistry and hormone production (much of which happens in the gut). If you can get hold of them in a pharmacy or online and take them daily then these will help as they assist in vagal stimulation. Foods rich in these are obviously good news and a perfectly good alternative.
- Breathing is a classic relaxation technique that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve. Twice a day we should all breathe in for 9 seconds and inflate the diaphragm as opposed to just our lungs – expand our tummies like a balloon, hold that breath for one second and then slowly breathe out for 11 seconds. Repeat this 7 times. If you can hum while you breathe out, all the better. While doing this simple exercise, see if you can take yourself to a ‘happy place’ in your mind – a strong visual image of a real or imagined place.
- Massage stimulates our ‘feel good’ hormones and is of course relaxing. This is perhaps a time for partners and family members to give each other hand and foot or shoulder massages – just while watching TV or listening to music. A scalp massage can also be bliss and does not need training. If you want to take this opportunity to really improve massage skills (you can even massage your own feet of course!) then there are online courses and demonstrations.
- Socialising and even just contemplating our positive social connections is helpful to our mood. Just a five minute phone call or a short Zoom session each day, especially with someone who makes you smile, will help improve our vagal tone and there is so much technology to help us to do this.