By Sara Ali, LPC-I, MS, Madiha Tahseen, Ph.D.
Is this story familiar to you? Malaika’s mom hasn’t been feeling well and was recently diagnosed with COVID-19. She gets the dreaded call that her mom is having difficulty breathing and is being hospitalized. Malaika is worried and constantly feels hopeless since she has limited communication with her mom in the hospital. She wants to take care of her but she cannot physically be there for her due to the necessary isolation measures. The best she can do is periodically talk to her over the phone to check in on her, but it almost always leaves her feeling more anxious. This may sound familiar to many who have loved ones who have been hospitalized during the COVID-19 pandemic. Feeling hopeless, constantly worrying, and feeling on edge can consume you in these situations, and if left alone, it can worsen your ability to handle things well and may even impact your mental health.
What is anxiety and how you can identify it?
You may not think about it as anxiety but the loss of control you feel and constant worry over your loved one are signs of anxiety, which can be triggered by a series of negative thoughts (i.e. constantly thinking/talking about your loved one in the hospital). It is a response within your body and mind that can show up in a number of ways from racing thoughts, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, or even heart palpitations. Although worrying is an essential part of our response system to help us keep safe or be alerted to danger, anxiety is more often an intense state of worry that can impair your abilities in your everyday life.
The goal is not to eliminate anxiety from our life–avoiding anxiety almost always makes it much worse. The best thing you can do is work right through it. How? Allow your anxious thoughts and physical sensations (chest pain, breathing) to wash over you, accepting how you are feeling. You can try noticing and describing the experience to yourself or others without judgment. Resist the urge to calm your fears by obsessively getting updates about your loved one.
How you experience anxiety is unique to you so having an awareness of yourself and paying attention to yourself is key. One way to do this is by being more mindful so that you can be attuned with how you are feeling. Mindful meditation is about paying attention to your breathing, your body, and your surroundings. It’s a powerful way to take control of yourself and be present with what you are feeling. Once you’ve done that, you can then think about how to cope when these feelings take over.
How can you cope with and manage your anxiety?
There are a number of ways to help calm your anxiety, and it is important to remember the right way is whatever works for you. Psychiatrist Sue Varma says that during a time of high stress, it’s important to focus on “the four “Ms” of mental health – mindfulness, mastery, movement, and meaningful engagement.” We’ll go into detail about each “M” below.
A prophetic tradition, this simple habit of mindful meditation can allow you to be present with yourself both in mind and body, helping you to reduce your anxiety. It doesn’t have to happen in a sitting room. If you find yourself feeling anxious about your loved one while doing the dishes or while driving, you can take that time to be present, focus on your breathing, and do these mindful steps.
As you engage in mindfulness, you may also start to get more attuned with your thoughts. With time away from your loved one, you may find yourself getting caught up with irrational and incessant negative thoughts (“What if she can’t tell the nurses what she needs?!” “What if he feels scared?”). You may also be engaging in polarized thinking. When we are worried or afraid, we tend to fill ourselves with thoughts such as “No one can help as I can,” “He has to be scared.” Be wary of these thoughts because it can distort the lens through which you make your choices and can exacerbate a negative situation even more.
This is the time to do some work in modifying your thought patterns. Cognitive modification is a great tool to use to help you replace negative ones (“What if she can’t tell the nurses what she needs?!”) with positive ones (“The nurses will find a way to figure out what she needs”). Journaling or charting your thoughts are excellent ways to gain more awareness of them.
You may find yourself with time that would have been spent at the hospital otherwise. Try to fill this time with getting better at something. Ideally, focus on something that you care about which strengthens you. Believe it or not, learning new skills or mastering existing ones can boost your self-esteem and in turn, improve your mental health. Try an activity or hobby that generates vitality and gives your time meaning. Passionate projects are great ways to stay engaged and help curb the anxiety that you feel.
Exercise! When you feel your thoughts taking over or your heart racing, go exercise! Your level of activity can have a significant impact on your mental health. Take a jog, go for a walk, do an in-home video exercise–whatever helps you get your heart racing for a different reason and your mind distracted. If you like being outdoors, one of the best ways to cope with anxiety is actually gardening!
This is a fancy way of saying “remember your community”. Humans need to connect, and these connections with others are one of the best ways to find emotional support during a turbulent time. It may be harder now because of the virus, but you can video call family and friends individually or as a group, and continue to be socially connected. Think about other connections broader than your inner circle that you can rely on–friends, colleagues, neighbors, virtual communities, and try to connect with them as well.
Create and strengthen your self-care bucket
During times of high stress, the tried-and-true anxiety prevention strategies are still helpful and make up your self-care bucket. You may find yourself lying awake at night thinking about your loved one in the hospital, which may be impacting your sleep quality. Sleep is essential for your mental health, especially during times of high anxiety. Try these sleep habits to beat anxiety and get better sleep. You may also find yourself too consumed by anxiety and worry about your loved one to focus on your diet–eating well is likely the last thing on your mind. However, just like sleep, diet can have an impact on your mood. Your brain on food can largely impact your mental wellness. Don’t let your food choices go by the wayside as you cope with the situation of your loved one being hospitalized.
Like Malaika, coping with a loved one who is in the hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic can leave you feeling helpless and anxious. There is only so much you can do to physically help your loved one, but there are many strategies you can employ to help yourself during this time. Rely on and pray to Allah (swt) to ease the pain of your loved one and grant them a smooth recovery. Know that your du’a during this time is a powerful tool. Take a moment to leave your loved one’s care in Allah’s hands and then, get to work on coping with your own anxiety using the strategies described in this article.