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How to Cope With Anxiety During a Pandemic

By Bianca Husodo

Original artwork courtesy of The Met Museum

How are you feeling? Is the pause from normal life giving you a greater sense of equilibrium? Or is the fusing together of isolation and existential stress making you feel more depressed and anxious?

There’s an invisible current of unease running through the world. Along the global trail of the pandemic spread, a pervasive, hard-to-define dread permeates.

As the streets are emptied out, most of us are staying cooped up behind closed doors. In our rooms of imposed isolation, we ask ourselves questions that we have no certain answers to. This happens while we adjust to a work-life rhythm within the confined space of our homes, trying our utmost best not to fall prey to a continuum and to live up to the unrealistic expectation of staying — or perhaps being even more — productive. 

This unconscious flow of stress disrupts your attention span. If by 3 in the afternoon you find yourself mentally exhausted and scrolling through memes in an attempt to distract the listless mind, you’re far from alone.

A large part of our collective anxiety can be attributed to the subliminal fear that’s lodged in the back of our minds. A study by Samantha Brooks of King’s College London finds that quarantine produces a range of bad mental health outcomes, including trauma, confusion and anger.

In a bid to preserve our physical health, it’s easy to let slip our mental wellbeing. Psychological health is like a wrestling match during these times of crisis. The situation throws stressors at you.

The question is: How do we overcome them?

Last week, T Singapore’s editor, Renée Batchelor, hosted an Instagram Live session with Dr. Sun Kaiying, a clinical psychologist at Hope for Tomorrow Psychology Centre, inviting anyone to ask the queries they might have about dealing with a world that has suddenly been upended.

Here, a revisiting of the discussed questions.

Amidst the daily gush of bad news, how do we cope with feelings of anxiousness and helplessness? How do we stay mindful of our mental wellbeing?

“Fear is normal,” assures Dr. Sun. “This is the first time that something like this has happened [in our lifetime]. We’ve never gone into this realm before. The feelings that we go through now are almost those that we would have in other stressful situations — but amplified.”

Acknowledging the mixed emotions we have — nervousness, anxiety, fear — is the first step in dealing with them, says Dr. Sun. One would also need to understand that this uncertainty is something that we have no control over. “There’s a need to step back to ask ourselves what we can manage during these times and stay with that,” continues Dr. Sun. “If we start thinking about the future and start worrying about it, the what-ifs are limitless. You’d just keep going down this unending tunnel of anxiety.”

If you do find yourself entering the tunnel, try to ground your mind to the present. “Come back to where we are, here and now; what we can do here and now,” advises Dr. Sun. “When we talk about being present, we always go back to regulating our breathing. Take note of what is happening now, what we can be in control of, and move on step by step.”

When we feel particularly anxious, what breathing exercises can we practise?

“When you notice you’re getting a bit edgy or you feel fidgety, you can start to move your focus to your belly and take deep breaths with slow exhales,” says Dr. Sun. Deep breathing helps put a pause to the worries and thoughts that are swarming your head. “This physical slowing down sends a visceral signal to your body, sort of like telling it that there’s no danger and to return and shift its focus to breathing, instead of keeping it to that panic or fear,” Dr. Sun explains.

“Another thing I do encourage is mindfulness to daily activities,” she continues. “Pick a routine that you always do in the morning and do it mindfully. When you start your day by brushing your teeth, for example, just ask yourself to take your time doing it and say, ‘I'll start my day in the present moment’. Notice the sensations of brushing your teeth. Allow yourself to have a nice start to the day instead of beginning it with worrying.”

How do I make a distinction between personal and professional life now that physical spaces have converged? How do I maintain a healthy work-life balance?

“Everyone has a different system of working and different family life,” Dr. Sun points out. “Take the time to figure out a routine and a new structure for you and your family. Try to find a new rhythm, but don’t get too hung up on getting things perfect.”

Segmenting your day is key. Having the day bleed into the afternoon and into the evening may not be the most helpful. Have clear markers or activities to signify that you are dedicating your time for certain times. Being a pyjama the whole day, for instance, might not be the best idea. 

“Categorise time — be it for work, for breaks — in your mind,” says Dr. Sun. “Perceiving it in chunks is more realistic.”

There’s this mounting pressure to stay, if not be much more, productive at home. Everyone seems to be doing more: More workouts, more cooking, more doing. How do we cope with this worry of not being able to keep up?

“This anxiety comes from the pressure or the expectations that we need to be as productive or to work in a similar style, as if we are at the workplace,” answers Dr. Sun. As a parent of two, she knows working at home will cause inevitable delays for certain work tasks during the day. “But this is part of what everyone else is also dealing with,” she says, “and that’s okay.”

Decide on your own pace. In a limited working environment, a reassessment of priorities is important.

When in isolation, how do we stay connected to the world?

“This is where technology steps in. You can check in with people through social media, text, Zoom,” says Dr. Sun. “Stressful as it could be, [this isolation] gives time for us to reconnect with the things and people we value.”

There’s no greater moment that calls for deeper conversations and emotional accompaniment. We’re all going through something together. We’ll be more resilient if we can see others experiencing it in the same way.

What should we do to stay mindful at home?

Podcasts, e-books and audiobooks are great and easily accessible,” suggests Dr. Sun. “Think about what type of activities you’d like to pursue at home as a start. Maybe yoga, board games, or meditating. For those who can go out, I would encourage you to do a little bit of that, just for a solo short walk at the park. But for those who are quarantined, a form of exercise at home will be awesome.”

What are some avenues that people can go through to get help during this period?

“The Singapore government has started a 24-hour helpline where people can call in or arrange for an email exchange and arrange for appointments to discuss their difficulties on a one-to-one basis with mental health professionals,” says Dr. Sun. The National Care Hotline is manned by 300 psychologists, counsellors, social workers, psychiatrists and public officers from about 50 agencies. There are also many other avenues for support that are available in the community via other means like online counselling and video calls.

“If you need someone to talk to about the issues that weigh you down — worried about Covid-19, its impact on your personal and family lives, on your jobs and livelihoods, and your future — you do not need to struggle alone,” said Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee in a Facebook post. People can call the National Care Hotline on 6202-6868. 

Dr. Sun is also available for counselling and can be contacted through her website, text (8551-4673) or email (kaiying.sun@hope4tmr.com).

Dr. Sun Kaiying is a clinical psychologist at Hope for Tomorrow Psychology Centre.
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