If there is one thing I like to think I am an expert on, it’s being anxious. Okay, it wouldn’t be my Mastermind category (that would be on Walt Disney World, in all honesty), and I’m not an expert in the clinical sense. But with over eight years of anxiety under my belt, I like to think I know a thing or two.
Let me walk you through my anxiety arsenal. On the left, you’ll find the condition that started it all – chronic anxiety. Also known as generalised anxiety disorder, this is the anxiety that is with me every day. It’s like my annoying, very unwanted, kind of used to it now, shadow. Then if you look to your right, you’ll see the extra triggers. Fear of failure – that’s a good one! It got me through my A Levels. And my degree. Oh look, there’s letting people down! That trigger makes me into a people pleaser – what a classic anxiety response. And finally, we come to the pièce de résistance; health anxiety. Now this is vintage anxiety, developed well before the COVID pandemic. It was introduced to me through living with chronic asthma, a life-threatening allergy, and now a hormone condition.
As such, health as an anxiety trigger pops up in almost every aspect of my life. If I go to a new restaurant, I worry about the food and allergens. If I can’t see an easy route to outside or the bathroom, I worry about having an anxiety attack that would turn into an asthma attack and not being able to get out. If I’m in the middle of the countryside, I worry that an ambulance wouldn’t be able to get to me. If I’m with people I don’t know, I don’t know if they’ve eaten peanuts or if they’ll start lighting up. If I’m with people who I do know, I worry about being a burden. Trust me, I could keep this list going for at least six more paragraphs.
So, COVID anxiety isn’t a new experience for me; it simply slots right in with what is already there. I already worry about what people are touching and breathing out. What’s one more thing to consider?! That got me thinking; hey, I’m not new to this. I’ve developed a whole load of techniques and management tips that help out with my health anxiety. So, why don’t I offer them to folks who are now living with health anxiety related to COVID? I know there is a lot of us out there. So, from the queen of health anxiety to anyone finding their feet in this COVID-y world, let’s jump into it.
Set your boundaries
Setting personal boundaries sometimes gets a bad rep. A lot of folks, myself included, don’t like to rock the boat, or are people pleasers, or would rather make themselves uncomfortable so others can be comfortable. When it comes to health and anxiety, you’ve got to take those feelings, screw them into a ball, throw them in the bin, and set up your boundaries.
For example, a friend of mine booked her birthday bash to be in an Indonesian restaurant for her birthday. On paper, what an excellent idea! In reality, that was a big no-no for me. The first thing on the menu, as you looked at starters, was roasted peanuts. Big red flag. Even if the kitchen could guarantee me a nut free meal, I would be so anxious from both the prospect of cross-contamination and of an air borne reaction, that I would be a nervous wreck. That’s not even considering the idea that I could, nay – almost certainly would – have an allergic reaction. Then, the people pleaser in me came out and started thinking about how devasted my friend would be if I didn’t come, and I started to think of ways around it, and – stop. This is where the boundary setting came in.
After a lot of fretting and stressing out, I simply said “Thank you for the invite, I would love to come! However, I won’t be able to because ~allergy~. I can give you a list of allergy friendly restaurants in the area of you want? If you really want to go to this place, no worries, we can arrange to do something together another day.” Lo and behold, the world didn’t end, despite my intrusive thoughts. We ended up going to a gorgeous nut free restaurant. Regardless of the long story, that is how you should approach you COVID related boundaries. “Sorry, I don’t feel safe being in a crowd with people I don’t know, so I won’t be coming.” “I will be keeping the mask on.” “No, I am traveling next week so I am keeping my contacts to a minimum.” Be clear and don’t let those anxious thoughts get the better of you. Your safety and your mental health should be above everything. So, unashamedly set those boundaries.
I’m well aware that this is a very strange thing to say considering both the topic at hand and that we need to breathe to survive. But it’s also the perfect anxiety busting technique. No, seriously, it is. There’s a reason every therapy or wellness expert tells you to do it! No matter how hard we try, things do not always go to plan. So, it’s important to have some techniques to hand to work through the anxiety. Deep breathing is one of them.
Find a clear, open space. Or a room by yourself. Or even just a toilet cubicle. Then, use a deep breathing technique you’ve learnt. Personally, square or box breathing is my favourite. Think of a square – an empty square made of thick, black, lines. Breathe in through your nose for four long seconds, counting one, two, three, four. Imagine the left side of the square changing colour from the bottom as you do this. When the colour creeps over the corner onto the top line of the square, hold that breath for four long seconds. Then when it creeps over the second corner, let go of all that beautiful breath out over a count of eight, over the right side and bottom line of the square. By the time you’ve changed the colour of the square and sixteen beats have passed, you’ve engaged in deep breathing. Do this again and again, until you can feel your breathing is calm, your thoughts are less busy, your fight or flight response is regulated. This goes for any anxiety related situation, not just health anxiety.
Quote Scar from The Lion King
Be prepaaaaared! If you’ve seen the film, I can guarantee you just read that like the song. But in all serious, being prepared is key. Not everyone is going to be on the same page as you – even folks who are on similar pages will not have the same response to situations as you do. So, whilst we would love to trust that the rest of humanity wants to care for each other and keep each other safe, we know that’s not the case. At all. So, we’ve got to prepare ourselves, physically, mentally, and literally. If the prospect of being caught up in a crowd stresses you out, make sure to carry a mask and hand sanitiser with you at all times. Look up capacities and requirements before you go. Tell people your worries and anxieties so they can help. Be prepared to set those boundaries!
On the flipside, you should also always be prepared for someone to take offense at the way you take care of yourself. Whether they do not understand anxiety; or are an anti-masker and anti-vaxxer; or are a firm believer that COVID is a hoax; or believe that COVID is ‘over’; or tell you to just ‘have a bit of fun, come on’. These people do exist and do not like the care and boundaries we create and uphold for ourselves. Just keep taking care of yourself because that is the most important thing in the world.
My fellow anxious folks, hopefully you have found this post helpful. At the very least, I hope it has shown you that you are not alone in your worries. Sometimes, that’s all you need to know. If you want more advice, the NHS website also has plenty of useful tips for people struggling with COVID related anxiety.
If you are a fellow health related anxious human, make yourself known in the comments! Tell me, what helps you when you can feel the anxiety creeping in? You might just help someone out.