Lean Into the Unknown: Ideas for Coping with Anxiety in an Uncertain World

We all know someone that seems constantly relaxed, who appears to never experience anxiety. My partner Chris is this person 90% of the time. 

However, with COVID-19 influencing lives around the world, it seems even the most laid back among us are prone to increased stress levels. 

Just before businesses started closing here in Portland, Chris and I attended a yoga class led by our good friend Blair. After the class, Chris said it was the first time he’d truly experienced the relaxation benefits of yoga, because it was the first time he had started a yoga class in a state of anxiety (must be nice).

If even my usually-relaxed partner is feeling anxious, I figure there are countless others out there that could benefit from some stress-reducing activities right now.

Stress is a normal human experience, and the body is equipped to handle it in doses. However, holding onto stress for extended periods of time can have negative effects on our health and immunity (learn more at the American Psychological Association).

The following are some social distancing-approved techniques and resources I’ve been using to reduce stress and nourish my body and mind. I’d love to hear what works for you, both on and off this list (share in the comments!).

Meditation or pranayama

Ah, meditation: the thing we all feel guilty about not doing more of. If you’ve never meditated before, I suggest downloading an app such as Calm to get started. Perhaps Future Tayler will even create a meditation video to upload this blog!

Alternatively, pranayama (or breathing exercises) can be effective and efficient in returning the body to a relaxed state. Try this breathing exercise called viloma pranayama led by the wonderful Blair Borax (start at 6 minutes for the breathing exercise, or listen to the entire thing for Nervous System 101):

Body scan exercise

One of my favorite techniques from yoga teacher training was lying down in savasana and taking a mental scan of the body, inviting every part of the body to relax, one by one. By the end of this practice, my entire body and mind feels more relaxed and grounded. This can be done anytime, although I find it especially juicy at the end of a movement practice. Here’s how to do it: 

Lie down on your back in savasana with your palms facing up by your sides and your feet splayed out. Take several normal breaths here. Notice where each part of your body makes contact with the earth.

Next, bring your awareness to your toes and invite the toes to relax. I like to imagine ripples of relaxation moving through my body, smoothing out the tension on every exhale. Spend 3 breaths here inviting the toes to relax.

Repeat this process as you move up through your body, inviting each body part to release tension and fully relax. Move up through the feet, calves, knees, thighs, pelvic area, abdomen, chest, entire back, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, fingers, neck, face and jaw. 

Finally, relax the entire body. With every exhale, feel your entire body melting into the earth, while feeling supported by the earth. Stay here for several minutes or as long as you’d like. 

Stay in touch with friends and family

Many of us are physically isolated, but we still depend on each other. Stay in touch with family and friends via email, text message, phone calls, video chats, or social media. Reach out to people you trust when you’re feeling down. Perhaps play online games or watch movies together from afar.

I just tried out Marco Polo at the suggestion of a friend and love it! When you download the Marco Polo app you can send short videos to your friends. I’m enjoying the ability to easily see my friends’ faces throughout my day and stay updated on what they’re doing.

Take a break from the internet and the news

Yes, the internet is a great tool for staying connected with friends and family. But too much time spent online, especially when that time involves reading fear-inducing articles or comments on social media, can increase anxiety. Try to limit time spent reading news updates and, instead, read or listen to something empowering or spiritually uplifting. 

A podcast I’ve been enjoying lately is Secular Buddhism (suggestion: listen to episodes 1-5 in order first). Buddhist philosophy is a powerful tool for personal development whether or not one identifies as spiritual or religious. I appreciate that the host begins every episode with the quote: “Don’t use Buddhism to become a better Buddhist. Use Buddhism to become a better whatever you are.” (Some of my musings at the end of this article were inspired by this podcast.)

A relevant book I’m reading now: The Fear Cure: Cultivating Courage as Medicine for the Body, Mind, and Soul by Lissa Rankin M.D. It teaches us how to identify the difference between the fear that helps us and the fear that hurts us, plus how we can transform our relationship with uncertainty to live our best lives. (EDIT: Now that I’m further along in the book, I’ll warn you… the book incorporates a blend of science and “woo.” You’ll want to approach this one with an open mind.)

Maybe your nourishing books or podcasts look different than mine. Maybe you’d prefer a gripping novel or a podcast with some comic relief. Choose what moves you and, instead of ingesting the news for the 5th time today, read or listen to that instead.

Move your body!

For me, movement is essential to my feeling of well-being. I always feel more relaxed and refreshed in my body and mind afterward. Sometimes I enjoy following a video instead of coming up with my own routine. There are abundant online opportunities to support mental and physical health through movement, especially as many businesses switch to online platforms in response to social distancing. Here are a few free resources that I personally use (although I encourage paying for content to support your local businesses if you have the means):

Namaste Kristina– Check out this short, 20-minute yoga flow from a brand new YouTube channel started by my lovely friend from yoga teacher training, Kristina! 

Yoga for Immunity by LYT Yoga– Free immunity flow by a physical therapist. This one’s for the body nerds out there! If you like her style, I recommend subscribing to her online classes. For a limited time she’s offering a free month here

Yoga with Adriene– tons of free yoga and meditation videos by a personable teacher

@flexandflow– Portland yoga studio streaming classes on Instagram live in response to the virus.

Planet Granite Yoga & Fitness Classes – My rock gym is live streaming yoga and fitness classes! Watch live or prerecorded classes for free.

Action Jacquelyn– YouTube channel for short at-home workouts. She also has a nice paid app.Practice a hobby you already love, or learn something new

Practice a hobby you already love or learn something new

Another way to de-stress is to immerse yourself in a hobby, project or class. Maybe you’d like to make art, dance, write, garden, play an instrument, sing, or just listen to music. Perhaps you’d like to take classes in something: learning a language, coding, photography, growing food, budgeting, juggling, jewelry-making, or cooking. With all the online content out there, you can learn something new even if your budget is $0.

Here’s a resource that I’ve been putting together with the business I help run, Urban Farm U: Free online daily gardening classes.  

Go outside

If you have the ability to go outside, do it! The stress-reducing benefits of being outdoors have been well-studied. According to a study from the International Journal of Environmental Health Research, just 20 minutes spent outside (even without exercising) improves one’s feeling of well-being. Another study from the University of Pittsburgh found people recovering from spinal surgery needed fewer medications and experienced less pain and stress when exposed to natural light. Some physicians are even adding “nature prescriptions” to their patients’ health plans. 

If you can safely go outside, it may be one of the simplest ways to reduce stress and boost well-being… even if it’s just your backyard.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness means paying attention to what you’re doing. It’s the secret ingredient in ALL of the above suggestions. Research shows that we are happier when we are focused on what we are doing, no matter how mundane the activity (source: Siddhartha’s Brain).

Here’s one way to practice mindfulness: Whatever activity you’re doing, commit to fully immersing yourself in it. For example, if you’re listening to music, REALLY listen… lie down, close your eyes and see if you can pick out all of the nuances of the song. If you’re taking an online class, pay attention and take notes instead of flipping through 10 different tabs (I am guilty of this). If you’re outside, feel the coolness of the grass under your feet, appreciate the sensation of the air on your skin, and observe the subtle sway of the trees in the breeze.

When your mind wanders, notice that it has wandered and then gently remind yourself of the activity at hand without judgment. Become like a scientist, witnessing your mind with a sense of detached curiosity. If you do find yourself judging yourself, notice the tendency with compassion (same technique as meditation!).

Finally, pay attention to what you might not be noticing. Maybe you feel fear and anxiety, and that’s okay. But perhaps there is ALSO gratitude for something, such as food or a roof over your head. Can you become comfortable with experiencing opposing emotions simultaneously? Can you find courage when feeling fear? Peace while experiencing chaos? Familiarity with the constant of change? 

What if, instead of resisting uncertainty, you leaned into it?

Consider how water can adapt to anything, yet is also immensely powerful to create change. When water flows in a river, it bends to flow with the changing landscape, yet also carves into the land to form canyons. When you move through life like water, you can simultaneously adapt to AND influence your surroundings. Embodying the essence of water is realizing that adaptability is precisely what gives you the power to create change.

Yes, the future is uncertain, and it’s okay to feel worried. If you feel there’s an action you need to take to feel safe and secure, take that action… but beyond that, try not to dwell on things you cannot control. And remember that, like everything in life, what you’re experiencing is temporary. It may be hard to fathom, but life will eventually go on. 

In the meantime, take care of yourself and focus on what you can control. Create a daily routine, prep and plan your meals, and take care of your body, mind and home.

Many of us will not feel relaxed 90% of the time like my partner Chris, especially when facing what seems like an increasingly uncertain world. That’s okay. In my opinion, part of the beauty of life is fully experiencing every moment as it comes, even if it’s mundane, sad, or stressful. Because maybe, if you observe carefully, you will notice something new. Maybe, alongside the chaos and uncertainty, you will also find joy, peace or gratitude. The wisdom of the present moment is profound… all you need to do is pay attention.

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