Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people across the country and around the world have lost loved ones, jobs, their daily routines and so much more.
A Harvard Business Review article from March 23 said the discomfort we’re all feeling is grief. And grief counselor Claire Bidwell Smith agrees.
“We’re grieving our kids being home from school, missing their classmates and graduations,” Bidwell Smith said on Nerdette podcast. “We’re grieving seeing all the numbers on the news even if it's not someone we knew, even that is grief. There are so many layers of it and I think that we really have to give ourselves permission to feel that.”
Bidwell Smith, who’s also the author of Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, talked with Nerdette host Greta Johnsen about how to identify your anxieties and calm your racing thoughts. Below are a few highlights from the conversation.
On loss being a perfect conduit for developing anxiety
Claire Bidwell Smith: In terms of the pandemic, when we all went through this our lives were all seemingly pretty normal up until a few months ago and all of a sudden this kind of came out of nowhere. And it was very jarring. It still is for so many of us. It’s caused us to rethink everything, especially our mortality, how long we have here. We are waking up every single day into a new world of uncertainty, and that uncertainty is so difficult to sit with.
And when you go through a big loss, it’s very similar. You’re suddenly slapped in the face with this reminder that we are not here forever and it is not in our control. When you start to have to face that, it can spill out in all kinds of ways. And a lot of that is physical manifestations. Racing hearts, nausea, panic attacks can come on.
On what she tells clients with serious anxiety
Greta Johnsen: The way I’ve been thinking of my own anxiety over the last couple months is ... it kind of reminds me of cicadas. Like the sound of cicadas. Sometimes there’s one, off in the distance, and you barely even notice it. Sometimes there are three in the tree right next to you, and even when one quiets down you can breathe a sigh of relief, but there are still these two going. It can be so overwhelming. I try to tell myself it will pass. As a grief counselor, what do you tell clients who are dealing with serious anxiety?
Bidwell Smith: I mean, I think we have to lean into it. Trying to get the cicadas to be quiet never works. Ignoring them doesn’t work. So we have to pay attention to them. It’s like a yellow cautionary light at a stop light. It’s asking you to look up and look around and pay attention.
Anxiety is a useful thing on a general level. We all have some level of anxiety and we wouldn’t actually want to get rid of it. But when it gets really out of control and all the cicadas are going at once, that’s when we know we need some help. And so stopping and really taking a look at all the things that are contributing to the anxiety: What are the thoughts that you’re obsessing on every day? What are you doing first thing in the morning? Are you taking in a ton of news? Are you really thinking about your person? Or, on the other hand, are you avoiding thinking about the person you’ve lost or what’s going on? Anxiety can come from avoidance just as much as well.
So there’s a lot there we can do. One of the most simple things that someone can do right now is some meditation. Taking time out to do some breath work, to stop your racing thoughts — step away from them, clear your mind a little bit — is what will help calm you down in an immediate sense and help in a long term way too. Use an app. There’s so many great apps that can guide you through some simple breath work.
Start your mornings with intention
Bidwell Smith: What happens is, we wake up in the morning and we are looking at our phones before we’re even out of bed, right? The amount of information you can download into your brain in two minutes of swiping around on your phone is outrageous. And all of these little tidbits you take in start ramping up your anxiety. So by the time you’re in the kitchen making coffee you’re already in an anxious state because of all the thoughts that are swirling around.
So the goal is to start to work with those thoughts. Take some space from them. Figure out which ones are causing you anxiety and learn how to step back from them.
The conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button to hear the full episode.