The long-awaited time has come for our world to start re-opening. Movie theaters, sports complexes, gyms, beaches, concerts, shopping, and travel. Bring on the adventure. It's been approximately 450 days since the first state of the emergency announcement on March 17, 2020, here in Ontario.
As our world starts to re-open, there are a few things you may wish to keep in mind if you have a pre-existing mental health condition. For example, if you had a tendency to be anxious before the pandemic, your baseline emotion is in a heightened state. For example if on a scale of 0 -10, with 0 being completely calm and 10 is extremely anxious, your 'normal' might be 2 or 3. If your baseline is heightened your window of tolerance is reduced making it mich easier for you to be activated by the trigger. You may wish to consider a reintegration process to adapt to socialization and group environments.
You see, the brain is hardwired for survival. So during the last 450 days, the brain has been doing its job, keeping us in survival mode. We have subconsciously put fears and worries to the side to get through this state of emergency.
This makes sense, especially in terms of our social environment and the significant changes we’ve gone through this past year.
When dealing with high anxious clients and building coping strategies to cope with anxiety, we use a gradual integration process called exposure therapy. We use exposure therapy to build a window of tolerance so that people with high anxious triggers can adapt to their environment.
Here are a few tips you might consider. Take what you like and leave the rest.
Take a few moments to think about some of the things you think could be worrisome for you while being in a public space. You could consider how you feel if you hear someone sneeze. What's your body's response when somebody doesn't wash their hands? How do you think when people are in your personal space? How does your body respond when somebody coughs? How many times a day do you use sanitizer? Have you developed a Rigorous routine for washing your hands? These things aren't bad. Healthy hygiene practices are good for you, but you could consider tapping into how you feel when you're in an environment or situation around other people who don't practice the same as you do. We can't control how others choose to manage themselves in public, but we choose how we respond to the situation.
If you tend to be highly anxious, you could consider re-integrating yourself slowly during non-peak times, for example, going to stores near closing so that it won't be as busy, and you can see how you respond in that sense. You could consider going to the mall just before it opens before the rush gets there and see how you feel walking around in a wide-open space.
When you are going into a public space, make sure you are with people you trust. These people would be people that understand you. They are empathic, compassionate, and know you experience anxiety. Make a plan with very little uncertainty. For example, We are going to Costco at 7:30 (a half-hour before closing) to get eggs, berries, and oil. This plan allows you to walk around the whole store with a specific goal in mind. You reduced worry by gauging your focus on a particular task.
Write about or journal your experience. So many people aren't a fan of journaling, but journalling allows you to process your experience. Every night before I go to bed, I write down specific things about my day. Even though this is a daily practice, I still experience things that come up during my writing that I ignored during the day. I am always grateful I've given Myself the opportunity for reflection. Here are a few props to get you started:
Upon entering or driving there, what thoughts did I have?
How did I feel in my body? ( heavy, light)
On a scale of 1 to 10, rate your anxiety.
Was I looking for an escape route?
Did I think about the worst-case scenarios?
Did I think about best-case scenarios?
Did I want to turn around and leave?
How exhausting was this for me on a scale of 1 to 10?
Did I have a sore stomach?
Did I feel tense in my body? If yes, where?
Did I feel a pit in the bottom of my stomach?
Was there anything else?
Use your breath. Breathwork is the most inexpensive tool we have. It is always with us, and we never have to worry about forgetting it. The problem is when we don't practice this in our daily lives. It's hard to call upon when we need it. When you wake up in the morning, before doing anything, take five deep belly breaths. Place your hand on your lower abdominal, take a deep breath into your hand and hold it for three seconds. Exhale very slowly. Take one regular breath. Now practice 5 to 10 times before you wake up and do your morning routine. This exercise helps to re-balance your nervous system. It stimulates the Vagus nerve, which is responsible for your freeze response or your shut down mode. I was stimulating your Vagus nerve. You can respond with intent when you are in a trigger.
How to integrate the teachings
If you read this and think, this is bang on this helps me then try to implement some of the suggestions. Alternatively, you may not resonate with these suggestions but it could prompt you to think of other things that are alinged with you, then do that! Reading this might evoke your sense of what you need, and that is the purpose. Blog writers or therapists aren't solvers of the world's problems. We are the messengers of information. Sometimes the info sits well with you, and that's great. Other times, it evokes your intuitive thoughts to give you what you need—looking forward to seeing you out on the streets!