The unusual ways we’ve come to deal with pandemic anxiety

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“In the last year or so, a lot of people have had a taste of what anxiety feels like for the first time,” says psychologist Dr Marny Lishman. “Most of us perceived a threat in our environment, and we all found that it feels really uncomfortable.”

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She says there are three main ways to deal with those anxious feelings: “The first is to take action: do something about the thing you’re worried about. Another way is to reframe your thoughts, and the final method is to distract yourself.”

It’s the latter option that has us doing some odd things at times, like looking at and naming cute puppies. But I’m not alone in doing this when anxious feelings are heightened.

When I’ve confessed my habit, others have told me about their own unusual ways to cope with anxiety. One woman told me she plays Sudoku to help her fall asleep, and another took up jigsaw puzzles, one after the other, during lockdown – not just for something to do, but to distract herself from the “what if?” thoughts that were busily circling her mind.

One man I spoke to said he dealt with anxiety by waking at 4.30am every morning to watch the sunrise. Not only did he find a distraction in this, he found companionship. “I’d take a picture and post it to Facebook, sharing with my friends the joy I felt as a new day dawned,” Jeremy Britton says. “When I’d check Facebook later, the picture would have many encouraging comments and appreciation from others who simply felt good seeing a picture of a sunrise.

“I was doing this to make myself feel better and happier, but somehow it also made others happy. I kept going and over time, started to attract followers who showed up in person to join me.”

It helped so much that he kept going, and Jeremy has now clocked up 1500 sunrises.

Lishman says the key to these strategies working is being absorbed in them. “If you’re engaged in something that has you totally in flow, it’s hard to have anxiety at the same time.”

This is what makes distraction a legitimate strategy for anxiety, as the distraction helps that moment to pass so you can get on with your day.

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“Being worried about something that might happen is a natural state that we all feel sometimes,” Lishman says. “To move from a state of distress, having some distraction techniques in your toolkit can help when you feel that unease creeping up.”

Some common distraction techniques include reading a book, doing crafts, playing with your dog, going out in nature, or calling a friend.

None of these distraction techniques – weird or otherwise – are a complete way of coping with anxiety. While they can get us through some tricky times, it’s also important to seek help if your anxious feelings are prolonged or getting in the way of you living your life.

So, when it comes to distracting yourself from anxious feelings, is it OK to do whatever works? Not quite.

First of all, the distraction you choose needs to be something that isn’t destructive or harmful. “Your brain can seek to alleviate the pain by reaching for unhelpful coping mechanisms like alcohol, drugs or other addictive behaviours,” says Lishman. “So it’s important to choose something proactive or constructive, or fun and engaging.”

Other than that, the choice is yours. “It has to be something that works for you, which usually means it’s something you enjoy,” says Lishman.

She adds that the distractions you enjoy don’t have to be only used at times of high anxiety. “You can also do these things as preventions, so that the activities that give you joy and energy help to maintain your wellbeing.”

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