In the summer of 2018, I began to experience severe anxiety and panic attacks. It was caused by a combination of burnout and an extremely challenging work context.
My burnout and anxiety had been escalating for months. One night in July, I woke up at 3 AM having a panic attack that lasted for 3 hours. It was as if there was a dam in my mind holding back all the anxiety that I had been experiencing. At that moment, the dam gave out.
I communicated with my work that I thought I’d be out for two weeks. This eventually turned into 6 months. I couldn’t even think about work without experiencing feelings of panic. I couldn’t open my work computer without feeling like I was going to have a panic attack.
Two months into my leave, I remember getting a phone call I wasn’t expecting and having one of the worst panic attacks of my life. FROM A PHONE CALL with a salesperson. Three months in, I had a panic attack during a call with someone from the disability insurance company. These were simple things (that generally wouldn’t be considered scary), but I had little capacity to manage stress.
I had to completely empty the dam of stress so that I could rebuild it.
I spent 6 months off of work learning to manage severe anxiety. I learned strategies that allowed me to cope with stress, and later I learned strategies that would help me thrive in the midst of it.
While this was a very challenging period of life for me, I am very thankful for this experience.
Because I am now depending on all these same strategies to get me through the days and weeks of this pandemic.
Two years ago, I experienced situations where I wasn’t in danger but my brain and body thought I was. Now, there is a very real danger. In this new reality, I am experiencing the same emotions (fear, panic, etc.) and physical sensations (shortness of breath, elevated heart rate, etc.).
This time, I know how to cope.
How I Learned Strategies to Cope and Thrive
In 2018, besides individual therapy, I participated in a Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) group. I won’t get too far into the specifics of DBT.
Here’s what you need to know for the purposes of this post. For me, it was a very effective approach that allowed me to recognize and cope with highly intense emotions like panic and anxiety. After building coping skills, the program teaches strategies to create a life the provides meaning and happiness.
While there were some aspects of the program that felt elementary, it was extremely transformational for me. It helped me to rethink a lot of my unconscious beliefs about myself and the world and build skills needed to cope and thrive.
The most important things I learned during this time were:
- How to reduce the frequency, duration, and intensity of panic attacks and severe anxiety
- How to increase my resiliency when intense emotions did happen
- Creating daily moments of happiness
- Understanding the importance of identifying and working toward long-term goals
I believe that all these same strategies can help us cope (and hopefully thrive) in any disaster, including this pandemic.
Strategies for Coping with Stress in Times of Disaster
There are many strategies to cope with stress and increase your resiliency. Here are the ones I am applying during this time.
I have been meditating regularly for about 2 years now.
Most people think that the purpose of meditation is to calm you down. While it can do that, meditation is important for many other reasons.
The most valuable thing about meditation is that it enables me to identify specific emotions and physical sensations. Before I started a regular meditation practice, something would be happening, and I would just know that I felt “bad.” Sometimes I wouldn’t notice it right away. It would often become severe before I realized that there was something going on.
Now, instead of feeling “bad”, I can identify specific things, such as:
- My chest feels tight. This tightness is extending to my shoulders, back, and neck.
- My heart rate has increased.
- I’m breathing faster or more shallow.
- My mind is racing.
- Feeling of fear, boredom, anger, anxiety, etc.
Because I have built skills to be more mindful, I usually realize that I’m feeling these things right away. For example, if I am reading or watching the news, I might start to feel the tension in my chest and realize my heart is beating faster than normal. I often will notice the physical sensations before identifying the emotion associated with it.
When this happens, I can often step away from what I am doing. Sometimes, identifying what is happening (e.g. my chest feels tight) is enough to diffuse the feeling. Sometimes, I realize that I need to use another coping strategy to get myself back to my baseline.
Before getting into those additional strategies, I’d like to say one more thing about mindfulness. Since I have become more mindful, I also notice more often when I am feeling happy, joyful, or grateful.
I have also struggled with depression throughout my life, and I used to feel like things were either good or bad. I didn’t think there was an in-between. I can now much more easily identify the positive moments throughout my day and appreciate them.
These skills are things that allow me to cope with intense emotions at the moment they are happening. The most important thing I learned about managing intense emotions is that it doesn’t work to try to “fix” anything while things feel intense.
These strategies are about figuring out how to cope while experiencing intense emotions. This allows me to reduce intensity before taking action.
Some of these strategies are things that people might traditionally consider to be “self-care”, such as:
- Removing yourself from the stressful situation
- Splashing cold water on your face
- Doing some sort of physical activity like a walk, yoga, run, etc.
- Distracting yourself with some sort of activity you find enjoyable, such as watching a show or movie, playing a game, cooking, cleaning, etc.
- Doing something kind for yourself such as drinking a cup of tea, eating some chocolate, using essential oils, listening to music, snuggling with a child or pet, taking a bath, stretching, etc.
Sometimes people use strategies like this as the solution and never go back and address the core challenge. These strategies are meant to help us be able to eventually address the issue at hand.
During the past month, I’ve done the following to help me calm down:
- Stepped away from watching or reading the news
- Gone for a walk
- Did fun activities like playing games, connecting with friends, watching movies, etc.
- Played fetch with my dog down our hallway
Reducing Emotional Vulnerability
We’ve all had moments where our emotions have gotten the best of us. Many times, I realize that the situation was exacerbated because I wasn’t taking care of my physical needs. Where do you think the word “hangry” comes from?
It’s a fact. People are more on edge when they are tired, hungry, or not feeling well. We can also do proactive things to help build our resiliency.
The things that we can do to build our resiliency are also often considered self-care activities, such as:
- Eating healthy (and enough)
- Getting enough sleep
- Addressing physical illness or pain
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding mood-altering substances (drugs and alcohol)
I want to speak specifically to avoiding mood-altering substances. Many people think that alcohol actually helps with anxiety. While it may at the moment, we are often deferring anxiety to the next day. Even small amounts of alcohol, like a single glass of wine, can cause you to feel more anxious the next day. My friend who blogs at A Purple Life found this to be the case during her 100 alcohol-free days last year.
Over the last month, here are the strategies I’ve been using to reduce my emotional vulnerability:
- Taking at least 1-2 walks daily for exercise and to get outside
- Doing some sort of strength training every other day
- Avoiding alcohol (for the most part)
- Eating healthy (and enough)
- Getting a lot of sleep since I have no commute
- I had food poisoning earlier this week, and I took time off to relax and get better. I’m luckily feeling better by now.
Proactive Coping (i.e. Preparing)
During a stressful time, it’s important to anticipate challenging situations. Then, we can think through how we would cope with them effectively.
I’m not talking about going down the rabbit hole with all worst-case scenarios. Instead, try to be realistic. What could realistically happen? It’s important to strike the right balance between being too alarmist and too lackadaisical.
Then prepare yourself both mentally and physically for these possibilities.
For example, it’s possible that we will be stuck in our house for an extended period of time (weeks or even months). We are currently quarantining ourselves for 14 days since Corey traveled back home from Seattle last week. What did we do to prepare for this scenario?
- We make sure to have food, paper products, medicine, and other necessities to get us through 4-6 weeks before needing to restock.
- We have planned virtual activities with friends and family – phone calls, virtual coffee or lunch dates, or even a game night over Zoom.
- We have thought of ways that we can get outside while still socially distancing ourselves from others. This includes walking the dog (and keeping a good distance from others), and we are also considering going to the park to play disc golf.
We are expecting that this period of social distancing will last a long time, so we are working on creating new routines. I want to feel pleasantly surprised if it’s over quickly, not agonizing because it’s going on for so long.
Another example is that we could continue to see the stock market drop. We could lose half of our invested assets. One or both of us could lose our jobs. While it’s unlikely that we both lose our jobs, preparing for this possibility makes us feel more secure. We did a lot to prepare for this scenario.
Over the past year or so, we’ve put even more money into our emergency savings, so we have over a year of expenses in cash. Having a large emergency fund would allow us to depend on our savings if one or both of us were to lose our jobs.
This also allows us to keep what’s already in the stock market there. I expect it will recover over time, and we don’t lock in losses unless we sell. We are also considering ways that we could reduce our living costs if needed.
If you aren’t comfortable with the size of your emergency fund, you could do a few things:
- Divert your current cash flow from investments to an emergency fund to help build it up a bit more.
- Identify ways you could reduce your living costs and funnel those savings to your emergency fund.
I will look at one more scenario. This one is on the alarmist side. Sometimes, I find it helpful to think through what I would do even if something very alarming happens. The act of thinking through it usually gives me confidence that I could manage the situation.
For example, I’ve thought about what we would do if our water supply is interrupted or becomes contaminated. For example, if too many people get sick to run wastewater treatment plants or do necessary waterline maintenance. If this unlikely event were to happen, I have a plan.
- If the water supply is interrupted, we have ~20 gallons of water stored in our basement. We also have a lake half a mile from our house. If necessary, we could get water from there and boil or purify it ourselves.
- If the water supply becomes contaminated, we could either boil the water or put it through our water purifier.
I find that if I think about things abstractly they feel much scarier than if I consider the concrete action steps I would take. Most of the time, I play out a scenario and realize that it’s something that I could both handle and prepare for.
For more information, check out last week’s post about how to prepare for a disaster.
Strategies to Thrive in a Time of Crisis
To thrive in a time of crisis, you must be able to cope. Yet, coping alone will not allow you to thrive. There are two key things we must to do beyond coping:
- Create positive experiences
- Work toward long-term goals and build mastery
Create Positive Experiences
There are so many things that we can do on a daily basis to add joy to our lives. I’ve been taking time to think about what will add joy to my day and making sure that I have time to do those things. Here are a few things I’ve done to create positive experiences in the last few weeks:
- Played Games
- Connected with friends and family by phone or video
- Took my dog for a walk
- Read a book for fun
- Cooked tasty food
I also started asking people on social media about some of the ways that they’ve been creating happiness in their lives. Here are some of my favorites:
Got the garden beds weeded and planted spinach, brussels and snap peas. ?— Chris Mamula (@caniretire_yet) March 21, 2020
1. Did painting with kids— A Dime Saved (@adimesaved) March 18, 2020
2. Mixed baking soda and vinegar to make explosions
Working Towards Long-Term Goals and Building Mastery
This is where the rubber really hits the road. I recently had a conversation with a friend who was worried they’d be too bored during this time. They “didn’t know what they even liked to do with their free time anymore.”
This time of life where things are slowing down a bit is a challenge but it is also an opportunity. This means you might get to take a little bit of time to reflect and experiment and figure out the things that you want. You can also build a supportive community that pushes you forward. And you can build the skills needed along the way.
I’m being very intentional about not only focusing on coping with crises but making sure that I’m also building toward my long-term goals.
During this time, I’m focusing on:
- Building up my blog and coaching business – two passions projects that will hopefully generate a full-time income.
- Experimenting with different ways of connecting with people, such as workshops, blog posts, small group coaching, 1:1, etc.
- Building a supportive community. Besides spending time virtually with friends and family, I am connecting regularly with my accountability buddy, my business coach, and my therapist.
- Growing my understanding of content creation for coaching and courses through an online course I’m taking.
Designing a life you love is a lifelong process. Once you’ve figured out how to cope with your current circumstances, I’d encourage you to use some of this time to reflect on and work toward your long-term goals.
Note: If you are currently in this stage and are looking for a supportive community to help you design your life, I will be launching my life design group coaching program over the next month. If this is something you’d be interested in learning more about, join my Group Coaching VIP list (below). This group will be the first to get updates about the program and how to sign-up.
You Can Both Cope and Thrive in Times of Disaster
Based on what we’ve seen happening around the world, the next few months are going to be intensely challenging. The financial and social ramifications of this disaster will be felt for years to come.
I hope that this post provided you with some ideas for how you can cope with the upcoming challenges and take care of yourself and your family. I also hope that you take time to reflect on what you want your new normal to look like both now and once we are through this pandemic.
What else do you do to cope during times of crisis?
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