Keeping calm in Baltimore’s turbulent times
A racing heart, sweaty palms, an incessant urge to check the latest news. It’s normal to feel anxious during the current coronavirus pandemic. Our lives have been disrupted; businesses are shuttered; the stock market has tanked; and no one knows when life will return to normal.
“We’re all having anxiety about the future,” said Dr. Sally Winston, co-founder of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, located on the Sheppard Pratt campus. “We’re all a little nuts right now, and we have to accept that is normal.”
In our new age of anxiety, what do local psychology experts recommend for managing fear and worry and staying connected?
Acknowledge your emotions
First, accept your anxious feelings, suggested Winston, co-author of several books about dealing with anxiety.
“People who are not used to having these thoughts and worries will have an instinct to put in an effort to stop it. But that tends to backfire,” she said. “The more you struggle with it and distract yourself and problem-solve, the more you make the problem worse.”
For example, if you try to push away your negative feelings with distractions such as Netflix, ice cream or alcohol, it can make matters worse. Carl Jung pointed out this paradox in his famous quote, “What you resist, persists.”
To understand this mental shift toward acceptance, Winston offered this metaphor: “There are two ways to turn the radio on when you’re worrying. One way is to turn on the radio to drown out the thoughts. That’s distraction, and it works for about two minutes, and then the worries come back,” she said. “The other way is to say, ‘While one part of my mind is worrying, I might as well listen to music.’”
In other words, it helps to acknowledge our fear, anger or confusion. Learn to feel those emotions and their effect on our bodies, and eventually they will pass.
“It’s not about changing your thoughts; it’s about changing your relationship with your thoughts,” Winston said. “It’s not about stamping out worries, but being compassionate with yourself.”
Psychologists suggest sitting quietly and sensing your breath and heartbeat. Take note if your jaw is clenched or you have a lump in your throat.
Consider the feelings with a gentle curiosity, and notice if they change or ebb. Most likely, they will fade in a short time.
Stay in touch with others
Next, don’t eschew all social contact, even with the “stay at home” order in Maryland. Pick up the phone and call a friend.
Also, now is a good time to become familiar with video chat programs you can use on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Most of them — including Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger and WeChat — are free.
Many churches are live-streaming services now, too. Classical and other musical performances are also widely available online through YouTube and Facebook.
Go on a news diet
While information is important, watching the news all day may do you more harm than good. If keeping up with the news brings you too much worry, it may be a good idea for you to go on a “news fast,” or restrict your news-gathering time.
At the very least, try to notice what it feels like to crave the latest news, suggested Maryland-based therapist Mark Sullivan, who has a private practice in Washington, D.C.
“Notice when you want to turn on the TV,” said Sullivan, a licensed social worker who has worked at the Washington Cancer Institute and at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
“That’s a totally natural, totally normal impulse. But pause right there and ask, ‘What need am I seeking to fill? Do I want information, or do I want connection?’
“If you leap at every impulse and you don’t know what need you’re trying to fill, chances are you’ll do it over and over again without ever feeling a sense of safety or closure or satisfaction,” Sullivan said. “It’s like a behavioral addiction.”
Try for mindfulness
When you feel anxious thinking about the future, try to stay in the present moment, known as practicing “mindfulness.”
Pause for self-reflection. Notice what’s around you. After all, at this instant, you are safe.
“Have as ordinary a day as you can, and stay in the present as much as you can,” Winston said. “When you’re worrying, there’s a ‘what if’ [mindset], and you’re right in the future. It’s about gently escorting yourself back to the moment you’re in.”
Or simply try “to do something that is sensory or active,” Winston said. “Not in order to stop thinking, but to be aware that there’s a larger experience than just thought.”
Move your body
Above all, most psychologists suggest, remember the therapeutic physical and mental benefits of exercise. If your anxiety is rising, take a bike ride or walk on an uncrowded street. Follow along with a free exercise video on YouTube.
“We’re encouraging fitness programs you can do at home through your online library system,” said Jenny Smith-Peers, spokeswoman at Iona Senior Services, based in Washington, D.C. “That hopefully will keep your mood up.”
If you don’t have an internet connection, pull out your favorite albums (or old Jane Fonda workout tapes) and dance in your living room.
Even gentle stretching can release endorphins and boost your mood. Tai chi is a perfect exercise for this purpose.
How to get help
If you are experiencing extreme anxiety or depression, reach out to a mental health professional.
Many psychologists, including Winston and Sullivan, now offer telemedicine, or video appointments. Established patients can talk with their clinicians via Skype, Zoom or FaceTime.
Medicare recently announced that it will be temporarily expanding coverage for telehealth services due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, and for the duration of the virus outbreak, doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists and licensed clinical social workers may bill Medicare for health screenings, evaluations, mental health counseling and more taking place via telemedicine rather than in person.
Medicare Advantage plans will also be expanding their telehealth services. For more information on the new coverage, see Medicare.gov/medicare-coronavirus.
Winston wants people suffering from anxiety to know that there’s hope. She and the 18 practitioners in her institute, founded in 1978, are still “seeing” patients around the clock, via video or telephone.
Contact the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland at (410) 938-8449. Or read Winston’s Psychology Today column, “Living with a Sticky Mind,” at bit.ly/worrytips.
Baltimore City residents can call the city’s free Crisis, Information & Referral Line at (410) 433-5175.