This article first appeared in Stuff April 06, 2020 Coronavirus: Six tips for keeping anxiety at bay.

On Queen’s Birthday weekend of 2015, our 17 year old son got in his car and drove three hours north to a surf comp. They were the longest hours of my life. While it’s not atypical for a parent of a young driver to feel anxious at their offspring flying solo on the open road, my situation is not typical. A year before, on Queen’s Birthday of 2014, his 12 year old sister headed off in a car, and never came home. Our dear girl, Abi, her friend Ella, and Ella’s mum, my friend Sally, were killed in a tragic road accident when a driver ploughed through a STOP sign and straight into them.

This week, as I lay in bed, I felt the familiar weight of anxiety settling into my chest and my mind. News from Air New Zealand, the closure of Bauer Media, and the horrific plight of millions of Indians sent me spiraling. Catastrophising in a way I’ve trained others to avoid, I thrashed through a sleepless night, jaw clenched, thoughts like a runaway train. Before daylight, we’d failed to make mortgage payments and lost our home. All in my head.

Things usually look better the next day. And they still do. But, as we prepare to enter what is likely to be the toughest few weeks of the COVID-19 crisis  – with community cases spiking and the deathtoll rising – it’s time to marshall my thoughts and get on top of that catastrophic thinking.

So here, are my top tips for keeping anxiety at bay – informed by the best of science and clinical practice, but also born from past experience. These strategies got me through our teenage boys’ road trips and helped me let them go in the years since the girls’ deaths.

  1. Tune into what’s playing on your ‘internal radio’. Lying in bed that night, I may as well have had the shark attack music playing from the Jaws movie. What doomsday yarns are you spinning?
  2. Separate facts from fiction. Karen Reivich, lead trainer for the US Army’s Military Resilience Program, also my lead resilience instructor at University of Pennsylvania, always reminded us to “stick to the facts” when our thoughts are making us anxious. Just because you thought it, doesn’t mean it’s true.
    • Slow down and consider the evidence for your catastrophic thinking
    • Ask yourself, is imagining the worst helping or harming you?
  3. Make ‘what if’ thinking your friend. Very deliberately make yourself come up with some alternative scenarios. Reivich’s team trained the US Army to use this three step process: picture the worst case scenario, next the best case scenario, realise reality is probably somewhere in the middle. Nobody – literally nobody in the world right now – can forecast how this will play out with 100% certainty, so don’t get swept up in down-spiralling ‘what if’ thinking. I continually tell myself that while my brain is really good at imaginging all the pain and misery of living without Abi in the future, it’s useless at conjuring up the good stuff. Great change and challenge also unearths unanticipated alliances, opportunities and kindnesses. Look what’s happening to the environment for instance. Don’t let gloom steal your hope.
  4. Keep yourself firmly anchored in the here and now. In our boys’ earliest days of driving, or moving into student flats in Dunedin, I used to tell myself, ‘until there is a policeman standing in front of you, you have to believe they are okay’. Focus on the present, and what you can control in this very moment.
  5. Sometimes physically moving helps me climb back down the anxiety ladder. If you’re lying in bed with the weight of the world pressing down on you, or feeling sick at images of India on breakfast television, move. Get up, go to a different room.
  6. Absorbing your thoughts elsewhere in really engaging activities also gives your mind a rest. Phone a friend, listen to your favourite podcast or make yourself read a book (even an old favourite). My brain welcomes the sense of mastery in creating order from chaos by completing a 240 piece jigsaw puzzle. Child’s play, but effective.

We cannot control our future, there are so many unknowns. Speculating over what might happen only makes us feel worse and doesn’t alter the outcome. Resilience research suggests that adopting a survivors’ mentality helps people cope with extreme adversity. Using the strategies above can help reduce anxiety, but you’ve got to want to win this fight and exert as much as control over your thinking and acting as you can. It’s not easy, but for most us, it’s something we can do.

Dr Lucy Hone is co-director at the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience, Adj. Fellow, University of Canterbury, and author of Resilient Grieving.