How To Stay Grounded In Uncertain Times
Psychotherapist and mental health and addictions therapist Sarah Ahmed weighs in on how we can take care of ourselves, and each other.
Sarah Ahmed is a psychotherapist and co-founder of WellNest psychotherapy services in Toronto, Canada. In addition to her work in mental health and addictions therapy, Sarah provides support on how to sustain healthy relationships and manage life stressors. Read on to hear more about how we can take care of our collective wellness during uncertain times.
We keep hearing it, and it’s true; these are truly unprecedented times. To those reading, I want to say this: it’s okay to feel what you are feeling, even if you can't place a finger on exactly what you are feeling. There is space in our hearts and minds to acknowledge the need for stringent measures to protect us all.
Current protective COVID-19 measures have forced many of us to either unexpectedly slow down, or increase our weekday workloads and may have left our weekends with a lot of free time. The things that normally occupy our time and energy are limited now, and depending on your specific circumstances, you may find yourself with more time to feel worried. Constant worry can be an exhausting companion, I can attest to that!
Like most of you, I also worry about the impact of COVID-19 on our most vulnerable loved ones, our economy, and our mental health. While we cannot control the course of this pandemic, we can definitely control how we respond to the changes in our environment. More than ever, during times like these, being compassionate towards yourself and those around you is very important, which is easier said than done. In this blog post, I will share a few strategies that aim to help you feel more grounded and calm during these uncertain times, and further aid with the cultivation of compassion towards yourself and others.
When the world around us is beyond our control, let us take a moment and shift our focus to what is happening within us. After all, this is where our best coping skills lie.
The Name Of The Beast: Uncertainty
The questions on everyone's mind these days - when will this end? When will this be over? What is ‘the new normal’? The uncertainty of not knowing when we can resume certain or specific parts of our lives is unsettling. Here’s the thing about uncertainty; it’s a normal part of life – all of us experience it. Yet, we all cope with it differently.
While some of us feel excited about the unknown, others may find it stressful and will engage in specific behaviors and strategies to avoid or eliminate uncertainty. In the world of psychotherapy, we refer to this as intolerance of uncertainty (IU). Intolerance of uncertainty involves the tendency to react negatively on an emotional, cognitive, and behavioral level to uncertain situations and events.
How Does Uncertainty Impact Our Mental Health?
Research has shown that intolerance to uncertainty has been linked with mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders as well as eating disorders. Over the past few weeks, most of us have seen our lives change drastically. We are establishing new routines and grieving the cancellation of important-to-us events like trips, graduations, birthdays, and weddings. For some of us, we now face the stressors of unexpected financial hardships. It is natural to feel uneasy with all these changes and adjustments happening over such a short period of time. In fact, over the past few weeks, I have been almost exclusively supporting clients with increased anxiety surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are wondering why your anxiety seems to be in overdrive these days, let us dive in to understand what is going on.
The Anxiety Response
The way many of us are behaving in response to our stressors looks like an anxiety response. The anxiety response is a natural human response to fear, stress, and any situation that we perceive to be threatening. Normally, this response is adaptive and can even be healthy! Having some degree of anxiety motivates us to act in ways that protect us from danger. When we experience traumatic events, such as the current global pandemic, our nervous systems immediately kick in, to protect us.
What You Can Do To Ease Your Anxiety Today
Soothing your nervous system through calming activities can be so helpful in these times. In my personal opinion, it is an essential life skill. In this blog post, I will share some of my favourite mood management strategies with you. These are techniques I often use in my psychotherapy work as well my own personal day to day routine.
Many of our mental health concerns manifest physically in our bodies. For instance:
- When we feel anxious, we may also feel nauseous
- When we feel stressed, we may experience headaches
- When we feel low, our bodies may feel heavy due to muscle tension
Let’s highlight different techniques for alleviating those mental & physical symptoms we may be experiencing.
There is wisdom in the commonly used phrase “just breathe”. Anxiety can cause us to take shallow breaths, which in turn exacerbates the feelings of panic or dread. Being mindful of our breathing can help alleviate our physical as well as mental health symptoms.
Here is a simple breakdown of the two types of breathing:
- Thoracic (chest) breathing
- Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing
When we are anxious, we tend to breathe from our chest (thoracic breathing) in short, rapid breaths. Short rapid breaths do not deliver enough oxygen to the blood in our body, thereby increasing physical symptoms of anxiety such as rapid heartbeats, tightness in the stomach and muscle tension. In contrast, breathing from the belly (diaphragmatic breathing) involves long, deep, even breaths. This is similar to how we breathe in a deep state of sleep.
Below are the steps you can take to practice this breathing technique.
TIP: Dab a few drops of your favorite essential oil roll-on under your nose, or add a favorite blend to your diffuser.
Easy Deep Breathing Exercise
- Place one hand on the middle of your chest and the other on your belly
- Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, letting the air fill your belly (imagine a balloon inflating). Notice the hand on your belly rise
- Now imagine blowing through a straw and exhale slowly through your mouth for 8 seconds (notice the hand on your belly fall)
- Repeat steps 1-3 as needed (suggestion 3-5 times)
While the intentional breathing helps relax your body by properly oxygenating the blood, the natural properties of plant based essential oils can help relax your mind.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Next up, let's address tightness in the body which many of us are all too familiar with as we work from our makeshift desks at home. Let’s start by understanding how stress translates into muscle tightness. Both mental and physical stress on our bodies can impact how our nervous system functions. When we experience stressors, our nervous system puts more pressure on the blood vessels which leads to a reduction in blood flow to our muscles. Reduced blood flow leads to muscle tightness and pain.
Progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, is one way to help ease the tension we hold in our bodies when feeling stressed. This is a two-step process that involves intentionally tensing muscles and then relaxing them. Commonly reported areas of muscle tension are around the neck, shoulders, lower back and tightness in the hips (from sitting). You may also observe some tension in the stomach which can evoke feelings of nausea.
2 Minute Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise
- Find a place that is comfortable to sit or stand. Warm up by taking 1-3 deep breaths (refer to belly breathing above)
- Take another deep breath and clench both your fists as hard as you can for about 5 seconds. It is important to feel the tension, however, be mindful of over-exerting yourself
- Exhale and release the tension you are holding
- Notice the tension flowing out of the muscle, and focus on the difference between the feeling of tension and relaxation
- Work your way up the body by focusing on one muscle group at a time (feet- legs-buttocks-back-shoulder-arms-face)
TIP: This exercise becomes easier with practice! Progressive muscle relaxation helps cultivate an awareness of the tension you are holding in your body, as you are holding it.
Mood Management with Essential Oils
At our psychotherapy clinic, WellNest, we promote the use of essential oils as part of our daily practice. Whether we have them diffusing throughout the space, are using them to enhance a quick stretch between clients, or during in-person sessions, we feel incorporating essential oils enhances awareness of our present experience.
Essential oils contain compounds that can exert therapeutic effects on our minds and bodies. Managing our experiences of anxiety, depression, and chronic stress with essential oils through the practice of aromatherapy can be very healing. It’s an accessible way to feel more grounded and centered throughout the day.
Here are some of my favorite ways to use essential oils to support your wellness:
- Roll-on a product for topical use, like calming and soothing Unwind or Stress Release
- Diffuse blends you find to be relaxing or peaceful, like Tranquility or Daydream
- Create DIY massage oils, by mixing soothing single notes like lavender or frankincense
Personally, I keep my roll-ons with me at all times. They’re an easy and accessible way to incorporate grounding strategies in my day, to help calm my nerves or alleviate feelings of stress. Low and lethargic moods can also benefit from a boost of invigorating aromas!
Here are my top choices to diffuse in our clinic:
- Refresh - we diffuse this minty, citrusy blend regularly at the clinic as it is truly refreshing to both the body and mind
- Yoga - this earthy, calming and comforting scent is often used while practicing grounding strategies, specifically deep breathing
- Liquid Sunshine - an energizing, uplifting and citrusy great way to start the day
- Single notes of sandalwood or jasmine. These are nostalgic essential oils for me, as sandalwood is native to my father’s hometown of Mysore, India and my mother loves to decorate her hair with jasmine flowers. Connecting to these essential oils so personally helps calm and ground me.
You are Unique and So Are Your Coping Mechanisms
Our coping strategies vary based on our lifestyle, responsibilities, demands, and preferences. In considering various coping skills, it’s important to focus on maintaining our overall health, and using what’s available to us. Do what works best for you in a way that is accessible and sustainable. Taking care of yourself during these uncertain times is an act of self-compassion and love. Nurturing this mindset may be the best technique we have to maintain our mental wellness throughout this ordeal.
Wishing you peace and wellness in all aspects of your life.