The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent events may have caused more stress, worry and anxiety than we usually experience. At this time, when we are facing exceptional circumstances in our working and social lives it is important to acknowledge and understand these emotions as they may be intense and come upon us suddenly.
What is going on?
When our bodies perceive a threat, we enter a state of ‘fight or flight’, which is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. During this state, automatic process operates; our thoughts can be racing, we may feel dizzy or lightheaded, our breathing can become faster and our heart beats quicker. We may feel overwhelmed and at times unable to cope.
Our two key systems are impacted – behavioural and cognitive.
The two main behaviours associated with fear and anxiety are to either fight or flee. The overwhelming urges associated with this response are those of agitation or a desire to escape wherever you are. Sometimes this is not possible, so individuals often express these urges through pacing, foot tapping or being short with others.
As the main objective of the fight/flight response is to alert the person to the possible existence of danger, one major cognitive change is that the individual begins to shift their attention to their surroundings to search for potential threat. In the current pandemic crisis, for example, individuals may have a heightened awareness of social distancing, washing hands and undertaking activities that minimise the risk of infection.
Restoration of the systems
Once immediate danger has abated, the body begins a process of restoration back to a more relaxed state. The heart rate begins to slow, breathing rate slows, the body’s temperature begins to lower, and the muscles begin to relax. The process of restoration is not immediate, however, and the systems do not return to normal straight away. Some residual effects of the fight/flight response only gradually taper off. This can leave the individual feeling ‘keyed up’ for some time afterwards.
Five strategies to improve coping
- Speak with someone you trust (family, colleague, friend or reach out to a counsellor through EAP line), sometimes just talking through your worries with someone can help to reduce them.
- At the end of the day when you shower, try and imagine all your worries washing away down the drain, take a few deep breaths and tell yourself three times out loud ‘These too shall pass ’.
- If you feel your emotions building up, take some time out – go to the bathroom, or walk away for a minute or two. Even short bursts of solitude can do wonders for our endurance, wellbeing, and resilience.
- When you finish work for the day switch off by watching something funny, even a short YouTube video on animals; humour can help release endorphins and feel-good emotions.
- Keep track of what works and what does not work by maintaining a journal or diary – if you are not a writer, though, you can mentally note what strategies have worked for you and helped you build your resilience.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, seek professional support. Psychological therapies can be done online, or remotely via phone or videoconferencing and are an excellent option if you’re in lock-down, self-isolation, or worried about going to a clinic.
Importantly, be assured that for most people, the anxiety will be temporary, and will reduce over time, especially once the virus has been contained.
For elderly clients
Telehealth counselling and support service for residents, staff and families – 03 9214 8653 (through Swinburne University)
Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement – 1800 22 22 00
Guest blogger – Dr. Julie Bajic Smith
Dr. Julie Bajic Smith is a registered psychologist who has worked in aged care for over a decade both as a clinician and a researcher. Her doctorate research examined wellbeing in home care workers and her postdoctoral research focused on supported decision-making in dementia. She has significant experience in assessment and the application of psychological treatments to older adults and recently published a book on enhancing emotional wellbeing in residential aged care environments. Julie has developed several preventative psychological group programs for older adults entering residential care which won Positive Living in Aged Care Awards. Julie is currently supervising mental health clinicians across several residential aged care facilities and delivers education and training to the aged care workforce.