Covid stress, anxiety and loneliness

“How can I best deal with the stress and anxiety related to Covid?” is a question I hear a lot these days in my work as POH and therapist.

People tell me how hard it is to not be able to meet friends, to be at home so much, to not have access to fun or energy giving activities.

The many hours of being stuck at home also seem to provoke lots of worries. I hear people worrying about the health of relatives. But also about more existential issues (“Is this really the life I like to have?”).

And I also hear a lot about loneliness. And with this I don’t mean the experience of being alone at home and missing friends or family. I mean the deep sense of isolation which you can feel even while being with people.

In this blogpost I like to give a few handles to deal with such worries, anxiety and other difficult emotions. You also find a couple of exercises you can download.

1. Regulate your arousal

Not everything what you feel is an emotion. We also feel arousal. Arousal and emotions often come together, but they are two separate things. You can notice high arousal when your heart is racing and your hands are sweaty. And you can notice low arousal when you feel little energy and you feel disconnected from the world around you. You can’t do anything useful with emotions if your arousal is either too high or too low. Then you will need to regulate your arousal. Here you can download the clearing a space exercise that can help.

2. Allow the emotion

Many people try to avoid difficult emotions. And when emotions arise they try to suppress them. This is not a sustainable solution. The reason we have emotions in the first place is because they help us survive. Suppressed emotions stick and become even stronger. Emotions need therefore attention.

When I say this to clients, one of the most common questions I get in response is: “So should I act on every emotion I feel? I can’t be frustrated/angry/sad/… all day”. The short answer is that allowing an emotion doesn’t mean acting on it.

Mindfulness can help a lot by learning to allow emotions more. Here you can download a guided mindfulness meditation which is specifically about allowing difficult emotions.

3. Feeling the emotion

To think about how lonely you feel and what you can do to feel less lonely is not the same as feeling lonely. Excessively thinking (rumination) is in fact a strategy to not feel emotions.

To feel an emotion, you will need to pay attention to your body. Sadness can for example be felt by some people as a pit in the stomach. Fear can sometimes express itself as a tight feeling around the throat.

Also keep in mind what an emotion is. Stress is not an emotion. Thoughts are not emotions. Fear, sadness, happiness, anger, shame, guilt are emotions. So if you worry a lot (for example about Covid), you might like to ask yourself: “How do I feel right now? Do I feel angry/anxious/sad?”

4.Every emotion needs attention, but not the same amount

Like I said before, emotions need attention. Just not every emotion is created equal. Secondary emotions (e.g. shame about anxiety, anger about sadness) mask primary emotions. The feelings you feel the easiest from day to day are usually secondary emotions. But it’s attention for the primary emotions that pay off most.

Covid-related fears are generally secondary emotions. They tend to mask primary fears like the fear to lose important people and be left behind or the fear to die.

A deep feeling of isolation which sometimes in your life sticks its head out at times when you feel stressed is typically a primary emotion.

A question that can help to connect to primary emotions is: “When I feel this, can I feel anything in addition to what I’m most aware of feeling?”.

5. Giving words to the emotion

When we give words (or other symbols) to an emotion, we can start to understand its meaning. You can then experience an inner shift, an ‘Aha!’.

Focusing is an exercise you can use for this. You try to let words come up intuitively. With every new word, you check whether this word captures the emotion. You can download a guided version here.

Above I described a few handles which could help you to deal with emotions in a more sustainable and satisfying way. Other relevant skills which I didn’t describe here are connecting to the need which is imbedded in every emotion, expressing emotions to others and reflecting on the broader meaning of emotions.

I offer an online emotional intelligence course where all these emotion skills are taught. But more importantly, you will have the opportunity to apply these skills in practical exercises which you do with a course buddy.