What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a physiological reaction of the body that can – although it doesn’t have to – be experienced as a feeling of threat or foreboding. It can be concentrated (like during a panic attack), or take on a form of scattered anxiety, general unrest and state of tension that accompany us all the time.
Why is it good practice to differentiate fear from anxiety during a pandemic?
Fear is a physical and emotional reaction to a genuinely threatening situation. Anxiety can induce similar physical symptoms. However, their source is not any external danger, but unsolved and unrealized internal conflicts, and suppressed feelings connected to them. People who experience anxiety rationalize it in an effort to find seemingly objective threats, but those factors are not really the source of their emotional state. The pandemic we are experiencing now is a source of fear for many, as it comes with real danger, but it also activates our anxieties.
Mainly because it poses a threat to our feeling of security.
How does anxiety affect the body?
It is expressed through tension, faster breathing, heart palpitations, sweating. When anxiety increases, we may also feel weak or numb, or experience bellyache, a knot in our stomach or tightness inside the chest. In its most intense form, anxiety can make us dizzy, affect our sight, hearing and clear thinking, and cause racing thoughts or a feeling of an empty head.
In what other ways does anxiety affect our mind?
Intense anxiety affects our cognitive functions, meaning that it hinders our ability to think effectively, connect the facts and use our memory. If we struggle with anxiety, there is a risk that in a difficult situation, we lose access to our full intellectual potential. For example, it happens that someone loses their nerve during an exam and fails, even though they were well-prepared and had all the knowledge they needed.
Is anxiety contagious?
Anxiety felt by others can be contagious, especially if we grew up with primary carers who were unable to handle their own anxieties . This way, they did not build a sense of security and did not equip the child with an anxiety management strategy.
What strategy would that be?
For example: when you’re feeling anxious, try to learn as much as you can about the thing that’s unsettling for you, and then act on it. In the case of coronavirus, understanding the ways of spreading it and effective prevention methods should significantly reduce our level of anxiety. If this does not happen, it usually means our childhood anxieties took over. The general uncertainty and lack of control further encourage this kind of emotional response.
What are the consequences of anxiety?
First of all, experiencing anxiety is very unpleasant and becomes a source of suffering on its own, especially for people who don’t know how to handle it effectively. Second, anxiety affects our performance. We cannot think as clearly, making more mistakes. Third, chronic anxiety is destructive to the body. In other words, our bodies are used to the occasional physiological reaction occurring temporarily in response to a threat, and not being a permanent state. Long-term experience of anxiety leads to psychosomatic disorders.
Are there no positive effects of experiencing anxiety?
Anxiety is an important signal from the body, telling us that there are some emotions and issues we have ignored. In that sense, it is our ally. It fulfils the same role as physical pain for somatic health: it lets us know that something is not right and is in need of attention.
How can we work on our anxiety on our own during the pandemic? We could use some practical tips.
All right, I’ll give you some practical advice. Look for information and news only in verified and reliable sources. Do everything you can to maintain safety, protect yourself and others, and stay up to date about the best ways of doing so. Approach the problems rationally.
What does the rational approach look like?
Gather the facts first. Then, answer the questions: What do I need to do in order to best protect myself and others? How do I take care of my mental health in this difficult situation? It’s also important to avoid being overly emotional about everything that’s happening. Don’t dramatize, don’t write worst-case scenarios in your head. And once you have all the information you need, curb down your media access to a minimum. Swap television and internet for the music you love or a good book; have a coffee in the sun on your balcony. It’s essential not to be constantly exposed to the media, which incessantly bombards us with anxiety and deregulates our emotions.
Take care of your physical shape. Be sensible about going for walks or gardening, and do your favourite kind of physical exercise at home regularly. I like yoga and dancing, and I also started to enjoy gardening. It calms me down and brings me joy. This way, I can restore my inner balance even after the most stressful situations. Control your breathing with meditation, mindfulness, or just some simple breathing exercises.
Why are breathing exercises recommended for anxiety?
By regulating our breathing, we can better control our parasympathetic nervous system and calm down a little. Apart from working on your breathing, take care of your social relationships. Call your friends and loved ones, ask how they’re doing, tell them about your day. It’s a good time to take notice of the people in our lives, even if it’s just through the phone or computer screen. Try doing something for them or with them. It could be cooking together, singing, playing games, or even simultaneous film-watching. It’s easier to go through a difficult time when we’re connected.
Show extreme kindness and care to anyone you cross paths with. You’re not the only one struggling right now. Keeping your distance or inability to shake hands won’t be a problem when you’re still able to exchange some friendly words. It’s also worth asking ourselves about our responsibility for other people in this situation. Try thinking about what good you can do for others. And don’t forget, everyone can do something. It gives us a sense of purpose and helps us realize we need each other; we are not alone. Remaining calm does not make us unable to take action.
What can happen to us when we’re forced to remain locked up with a limited number of people?
We are living in times of change and uncertainty. Some people are losing their privileges, while others are being deprived of their livelihood, health and lives. Many insist that we have the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate our lifestyle and radically change the system that led to the climate catastrophe. Every significant destabilization of the status quo is both a challenge and a chance. It’s up to us whether we want to use it, or become a victim of undeserved misfortune. It is undeniable that the pandemic made us do things that we were previously unable to do for Earth: we have stopped driving cars, buying and consuming absurd amounts of things that we don’t need, and in consequence, we have stopped generating enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. We have focused more on our loved ones, whom we often used to ignore and neglect. And that’s because we have no other choice. Perhaps not every spiritual practice has to take place in a church or meditation hall. Now, every day and every decision turns into a spiritual practice. Let’s make use of it. We might never get such a chance again – a chance to become different people, to learn something about ourselves and the world around us.
Healthcare workers, shop assistants, delivery drivers, cooks, bakers, farmers, pharmacists and people in several other professions don’t get the luxury of staying at home. They work overtime to the point of exhaustion. Do you have any advice for them; any exercises or ideas?
I do not. All I can do is share what I heard from my close friend, a hero from the hospital frontlines. She is a nurse working in a British hospital which, like our Central Clinical Hospital of the MSWiA in Warsaw, was converted into an infectious diseases hospital. Every day, she leaves home to look after COVID-19 patients. She told me that she feels embarrassed when people applaud her as she leaves the hospital, because she’d rather not be doing it. She does it out of a sense of duty. It’s more than just a job, it’s a mission. She told her partner and children that when she’s at home, she doesn’t want to see the news about the pandemic on the TV or talk about it. This nurse wants to protect her home from anxiety and maintain a sliver of normalcy there. That’s a way to cope. I think if those people who are at risk every day thought about the threat constantly, they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs at all. This is why it’s so important for everyone to take responsibility and do what they must do. We all need it now.
Some people choose to wait out the current crisis, while others want a change; they opt for building a new order in the world. When is waiting for a crisis to end helpful, and when is it harmful?
I don’t believe this experience is something we can wait out. It’s too big. Waiting things out denies the fundamental truth that everything has changed. We have to learn to live in this new reality, where nothing will ever be the same. I think there is no coming back to the world from before this experience. We can already see that things are vastly different. It’s a great opportunity for us to make the planet a better place to live, not just for humans but for all living creatures.
You mentioned spirituality. What is it, in your view?
To me, spirituality is the ability to hear and respond emotionally to the voice of our soul that calls us sometimes, each and every one of us. We are not here just to be thoughtless consumers of goods and redundant information; to do what others expect of us; to pay taxes and fulfil orders. Perhaps we needed a shock to realize it.
Some people are digging into conspiracy theories; others choose to fight. A lot of us are afraid or devastated; some choose to seek gurus, religions or some simplified versions of spirituality. Where should we look for strength? How can we be sure that the paths we choose are our own and not some delusion?
There is no simple answer to this question. We cannot rely on external sources of emotional support for our entire life. At some point – and this is part of the individuation process – we must start realizing that we are single-handedly responsible for our life. Nobody is ever going to relieve us of this job. We are here because we have something to do, and we cannot avoid it forever. We just has to accept this challenge, face our anxieties, and look into the dark parts of our soul that we are so afraid of. We have to stop running.
At times, psychology has made the mistake of perceiving humans and our relationship with the world too narrowly. Some therapists encourage us to keep upgrading our quality of life, to buy ourselves gifts when we feel down, to think about our needs and emotions. This strategy tends to inflate our ego and, albeit indirectly, distract us from the increasingly degrading natural environment. When psychology places humans on a pedestal, it makes them believe they are above nature.
Together with Maciej Wiśniewski, I run a programme called ‘A Dark Forest’, focused on achieving emotional maturity, integrity, and undergoing the individuation process in the second half of life. C. G. Jung described it in great detail. If, at some point of our life, we don’t stop chasing the ego and its prizes, if we don’t turn towards our inner life instead, if we keep boycotting this calling of our soul, we will live a desperate, meaningless existence. We won’t find our true calling.
I strongly relate to Eastern philosophy, with its focus on unity. Once we realize in our mind and heart that we are one with the world and other people, we will be able to stop destroying the world that surrounds us. There is no ‘I’, there is no ‘you’. Everything we do to the world and to other people, we do to ourselves. So when you greet a stranger on the street with a kind smile, it is a gift for you as much as it is for them. Perhaps it’s a gift to yourself more than to them, actually. That person can receive it from someone else, but you can only get it from you. Today, for a brief moment, I was flooded with emotion in a very plain situation. I was cooking Italian pasta in my sun-flooded kitchen. Suddenly I remembered my travels in Italy, sailing around Sicily, all the wonderful tomatoes and cheeses and their flavours, better than anywhere else in the world. I thought of all those kind, friendly, good-natured Italians I met, and of the tragedy they are experiencing right now, as a nation. And at that moment, I realized that those people are my brothers and sisters, and therefore their suffering is also mine, to an extent. I cannot say I don’t care about what’s happening there just because it’s far away. We are all human. We feel and suffer just the same.
How can we become better at being close with people and other creatures during lockdown?
It’s worth starting with observation. Be mindful of how those around us are dealing with this situation, what they need, how we can help them. This means avoiding doing what we think is best for us. Instead, try watching, listening, asking. Try being present and responding to what they really need from us. Bring some humour, joy and pleasure to their life, which is now so full of restrictions and frustration. Another important thing is respect for everything that lives, whether it’s animals, plants or people. We all share the same home.
What do you mean when you say the pandemic is a chance for us and for the planet?
A grave tragedy is unfolding each day for thousands of people across the globe. It can befall every one of us, at any moment. And yet, something very important and very momentous is happening. Our lives have been put entirely on hold; we have fallen out of the beaten track of our long-established routines. Things we considered obvious are no longer a given. Things we took for granted are now out of our reach. Things we never thought possible are now happening. And at the same time, some kind of empty space has opened. I try to fill it with spiritual work: prayer, meditation, reading and writing. I consider those activities extremely important and useful to me, as well as to others. It means a lot to me that despite the great effort and exhaustion, I manage to keep doing my work, look after my patients, support my colleagues, take care of my home, ensure the relative safety of my child, am there for my friends, co-workers and neighbours. It grounds me. In this moment of weakness, I draw strength from it. It makes me tougher and more resilient.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Dr Martyna Goryniak:
A certified coach and therapist at the Polish Psychologists' Association. She co-runs the Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy Centre Horyzonty in Warsaw, where she does individual and group therapy. She also lectures at the Academy of Leadership Psychology.
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano