Managing pandemic anxiety within your practiceby
The Covid-19 pandemic is not only a threat to our physical health. Lockdowns, restrictions and fears of the virus are all taking their toll on mental health as well.
Last month we talked about the importance of understanding resilience and learning to build our resources in order to feel more resilient.
This month, we’re looking at how we can build tools to help us have the necessary resources to manage anxiety.
There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has turned our lives completely upside down. January has already hit the accounting profession with a cocktail of stressors, from the annual SA season strains to the latest HMRC update on late filing penalties.
“It's of no real benefit to us now at this stage in the season,” commented AWEB reader Sparkly of HMRC's 11th hour U-turn. “They can't answer the phone, or respond to letters. This seems like a move to try and prevent HMRC from being even more overwhelmed than they already are than offering us any kind of a break!”
“Absolutely ridiculous that they have waited until the last week to announce this,” agreed AWEB member NH.
Same storm, different boats
We spent much of 2020 learning to live with restrictions we could never have imagined we would face. Now, in 2021, the vaccination programme is underway, giving us much longed-for light at the end of the tunnel. But we know from the daily figures we see in the news that while better times may be ahead, we are still very much in the eye of the storm.
We’ve got used to hearing that we are “all in the same boat”. But I think that analogy is unhelpful. The last ten months have impacted people in so many different ways, so I think it’s more helpful to think of it as all being in the same storm, but in very different boats.
The struggles brought about by the pandemic, lockdowns and different restrictions on daily life can manifest in many different ways. For some people it has caused health anxiety. For others, it's brought financial worries. For others, perhaps if they are home-schooling or suddenly caring for someone vulnerable, it’s caused pressure in family life.
Even before the pandemic we knew that one in three of us would experience anxiety or panic attacks at some time in our lives. The most resilient of us will recognise the knot in the stomach, our breathing speeding up, or that short-tempered feeling that being anxious brings on.
Some of us might wake up feeling anxious every day, while others might experience anxiety in certain circumstances. Whatever the cause, it can be all-consuming - and with the huge challenges we are all facing at the moment it’s something far more of us will be trying to deal with.
So understanding what happens to your body when that feeling of anxiety hits is the first step to managing it.
When we become anxious, we get a surge of adrenaline and cortisol throughout our bodies. This causes our blood pressure to rise and increases our heart rate - so bringing anxiety under control is just as important for our physical health as it is for our mental health.
The first physical change you might notice when you become anxious is your breathing. It becomes more shallow, which means there is less oxygen flowing through the body. This in turn can cause the brain to panic, magnifying the original feeling of anxiety.
It’s good practice to learn to pay more attention to your breathing. It’s something very few of us think about, but stopping to notice where you are breathing from - how deeply you are breathing - can really help you to manage all sorts of stressful situations.
Any time you feel yourself becoming anxious you can try a very powerful breathing exercise which will calm your brain and, in turn, your body:
- Wherever you happen to be, make sure you’re sitting up straight. Stretch your spine to allow your lungs to breathe freely.
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of six.
- Hold for two.
- Breathe out for a count of eight.
- Repeat for at least one minute.
This exercise helps to bring your brain back into the present moment - and that’s really important when trying to overcome anxiety. When you’re feeling anxious you’re triggering a part of your brain called the amygdala. This area of your brain is largely responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Because of this, it makes sense that if we trigger the amygdala for a prolonged period of time we are likely to start to suffer a great deal of emotional and physical discomfort.
In addition to the breathing exercise, there’s another great technique for bringing yourself back to the present:
- Sitting where you are, focus on one thing you can hear. This could be the radio, a bird singing, or the kettle boiling. Think about the sound it’s making.
- Now think of something you can smell. It might be perfume, cut grass, or a flower, for instance. Really focus on that scent.
- Shift your attention to something you can see, and think about whatever is visual about it. What colour is it? What shape?
- Now focus on something you can feel. It could be your clothes touching your skin, or the seat beneath you.
- Finally, imagine something you might taste - whether a cup of tea, a piece of chocolate or a juicy apple.
Engaging your five senses in this way helps you to focus on the present moment and moves you away from a fight or flight response. When we use the senses exercise, we are using our brain in a completely different way to when we are anxious, which triggers a sense of calm.
It’s little wonder that so many of us are dealing with anxiety of some description at the moment. However it may be manifesting itself for you - whichever boat you are navigating this storm in - it’s important to be kind to yourself and remind yourself we are facing tremendous challenges. It’s normal to struggle sometimes. The most important thing is to acknowledge it, be kind to yourself, and seek help if you need to.
We will reach calmer waters again.
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Lianne Weaver is the Managing Director of Beam Development & Training Ltd, which delivers unique wellbeing, happiness, personal development and resilience training to companies and individuals both in the classroom and online. She works with government organisations, banks, law firms as well as SME’s. Lianne is also a therapist, working...