Dealing with anxious thoughts and feelings

A situation like the present coronavirus epidemic can leave many of us feeling very uncomfortable and anxious. And this anxiety can spill over in all kinds of unwelcome and unhelpful ways.

It might take the form of preoccupation with the rolling news. It might turn into irritability and impatience with those close to us. It might result in fear and isolation from sources of help and assistance.

While nobody enjoys feeling anxious, anxiety is in a sense our mind’s way of warning us of danger. It actually serves a purpose and keeps us alert to threats. But it’s a bit of a blunt instrument, is easily activated, and leaves us unsettled and concerned.

Dr. Steven Hayes, leading researcher and practitioner in the field of psychological flexibility, describes our mind as a ‘thinking engine’ – one without an off switch. This means that our mind will constantly gives us thoughts, images, memories, predictions and emotions. Our job is not to control this stream of content, but rather to act in helpful ways, despite the discomfort they bring.

What does psychological flexibility tell us about thoughts and emotions?

Firstly, thoughts are just thoughts. They’re not necessarily facts, or threats. Many of the thoughts that our mind gives us are predictions and worries about a future that hasn’t even happened. So the first step is to see thoughts as they are, rather than what they say they are.

Secondly, thoughts and emotions are neither bad nor good. Instead, it’s helpful to view our inner experiences as either being helpful or unhelpful, depending on the context. So if we can see a thought as unhelpful, as we’re trying to focus on something else in our immediate environment, it’s a bit easier to let it float off.

The emotions we experience in the middle of a crises are completely legitimate. The important thing is to acknowledge them and give them space. Not deny them or attempt to suppress them. When we struggle to somehow change our thoughts and emotions, we take our focus off what’s happening around us and get caught up in a battle we can’t win.

Unpleasant emotions don’t last forever. In fact, we can sit with an emotion and notice as it passes – without having to take the action it demands. In other words, we can feel a strong emotion, but act in a very different way. They’re strong indicators, but terrible signposts.

So here are a few suggestions on how to deal with the anxiety that we’ll all feel occasionally during this unprecedented global emergency:

  • Practice labelling your inner experiences. Get specific and see them for what they are e.g. a pleasant emotion, an anxious prediction, a fond memory, a plan for the future, an assumption about someone else’s motivation, some self-criticism, and so on. This helps us see thoughts and emotions as temporary and not facts to act on.
  • Writing about your strong emotions can help take away some of their impact. Consider maintaining a journal about your experiences. It’s doesn’t have to take you very long. A few lines about each day and how you felt about it.
  • Practice checking in with yourself. Set an alarm on your smartphone for a few times a day and when it goes off, ask yourself: Where is my attention right now? What am I feeling? What could I do next that’s helpful to me in this situation?
  • Be careful with your use of social media and the news. These can be a source of anxiety as well as information. Notice how you feel when you read updates and be intentional in your use of both.

Remember: anxious thoughts and feelings are entirely legitimate. It’s what you do with them that counts.


Richard MacKinnon is a Chartered Psychologist and Registered Coaching Psychologist based in London, with over 18 years experience as a practitioner. Richard’s coaching practice focuses on three broad areas: wellbeing, productivity and interpersonal effectiveness.

Read more blogs from Richard – Four mistakes to avoid when it comes to workplace wellbeing