Diane Niesley

Diane Niesley

Little did we know when the calendar slipped to this new decade that we would be facing a pandemic. Now we also are faced with a contentious election, bombarded with political messages of blame, ridicule, denial and avoidance. 

Some people deal with anxiety on an ongoing basis. Given what we are now facing it’s not surprising to find anxiety for everyone is on the rise. As a clinical social worker, I am seeing an increase in clients experiencing anxiety across all age ranges.

We are wired to be in control, and in these times there is much that seems out of our control. Anxiety is our brain’s reaction to uncertainty, the unexpected, and things that might harm us.

We have a warrior part of our brain — the amygdala — always on the alert trying to protect us. Our amygdala processes fear, sending out the alarm triggering the fight-or-flight response in our brains. This of course helps us when we suddenly encounter imminent danger, but these days the danger is unseen and unpredictable. Anxiety symptoms include feeling nervous, having a sense of doom, shortness of breath, body tension, changes in sleep and eating and increased substance abuse.

Our sense of competency in how we do daily life has changed dramatically. Things we did routinely now require more forethought, planning or cancellation. This saps our emotional energy. Businesses have closed; jobs have changed; masks and social distancing are the new normal. How we do life has changed dramatically while our community support systems have had to reduce and change what they provide.

No matter what your political beliefs or affiliation may be, this is a unique moment in the history of our country. The turmoil we hear about in daily major headlines can be overwhelming, and dealing with ideological differences with our fellow Americans is stressful.

The good news is that there are some things to do now to reduce anxiety. Of course, nothing is a magic wand, but these tools can help in coping with and alleviating anxiety.

— Be aware of boundaries. Reducing time spent on social media can be helpful; often social media doesn’t make us feel better and may even make us feel worse. Limit your exposure to the news, not listening constantly, choosing to be cautious and curious about your sources. Step away from conversations that are arousing stress and leading nowhere.

— Be reflective. Take five to 10 minutes and make a list of things that you cannot control. Then take time to write a list of specific things that you can control.

— Be mindful. What are you thinking and feeling? Our minds tend to go to the worst thing. But what else is possible? Label your emotions and thoughts. Anxiety causes our feelings and thoughts to race. Take a moment to identify them without judgment. Labeling gives us the ability to control and contain the internal spin. (I like the metaphor of a refrigerator: If you open the door, the liquids are in containers, not running over and everything making a mess.) Focus on this moment, breathe, look around and use your senses. What do you see, smell, hear, taste, feel on your body? The future is unknown, but doing this helps ground you in the now, the moment in which you have some control.

— Be active. Find creative and positive ways to make connections with others. Take walks, stretch and exercise. Eat healthy food and get plenty of sleep. Start a new hobby, listen to music, learn a language (there are free apps to get you started and they can be a fun break in a crazy schedule). Read something interesting. Find meaningful ways to be involved to help others in your community.

— Be kind. Feeling overwhelmed and anxious is very common right now. Think of what you have already overcome and the stories of resilience in the past. This time will not go on forever.

— Be encouraged, as there are some things you can control. At this time, faith can be a comfort, giving us permission to lament what we have lost and what we face. It can also give us hope and a much-needed perspective shift. Others in history have gone through hard times like these. Your attitude in facing these things helps build your resilience.

Diane Niesley holds a master’s degree in social work and is a licensed clinical social worker whose practice is based in Lancaster.