Coronavirus: How to Cope When You’re Feeling Irritable or Anxious

Every one of us is living with slightly different circumstances and facing different challenges throughout lockdown. We’ve also all come into this experience with varying levels of mental and physical health, so it’s fair to say that everyone will be feeling slightly different right now. However, one thing that we all share is a basic human need for connection and a sense of our own agency. So, no matter where you’re living and what your situation is, the anxiety and feelings of frustration caused by the ongoing and changing nature of the Covid-19 pandemic does not discriminate. 

Right now, our threat systems are focused on recognising and alerting us to danger and finding ways to deal with the threat by activating the fight and flight mechanism. The anxiety that this system generates is likely to stay around if we don’t take steps to manage it, especially as solutions to the threat aren’t straight forward.  

If you’re looking for effective ways to manage your feelings, the first step is to try and understand them a bit better. This can be difficult given how variable our emotions are on a daily basis, but if you take the time to reflect and look inwards, you should start to be able to make sense of what’s bothering you and what your triggers are.  

Anxiety and irritability 

Two of the most common emotions we’re all experiencing right now are anxiety and irritability. Both are completely understandable given the current situation and will manifest themselves differently in each of us.  

Irritability is linked to our threat system and is usually a sign that we are becoming overwhelmed with current stresses. Ongoing change to our usual routines, poor sleeping patterns, juggling family and work concerns are all contributors as to why people are experiencing several emotions at once. 

Anxiety, on the other hand, may give us a sense of urgency, an overwhelming sense of fear, racing thoughts and irritability may be part of this configuration. Emotions play out slightly differently in all of us so it may be worth just tuning into how they affect you, where they start in the body, how they make you feel, how they prompt you to behave. What are the tell-tale signs that are specific to you? 

How to feel better 

Firstly, tune in and recognise that you’re feeling this way. It may be wise to keep a diary to recognise the situations and triggers that prompt feelings of anxiety and frustration and try to manage your expectations of yourself and others. Label the feelings you have: ‘here is anxiety’, ‘there is a lot of frustration around at the moment’, ‘anger is here’. This creates a slight gap in which we can separate ourselves from our emotions. We are then in a position to make wiser choices of what to do next instead of being caught up in them and acting in ways that are reactive and unhelpful for ourselves and others.  

Whilst it’s not that easy to walk away, breathing exercises may help to calm the system and can be practised in the moment. Grounding yourself in the body may disrupt the flow of negative and anxious thoughts. Feel the weight of your body as you stand or sit, focus on your feet and imagine being supported by the solid of the ground underneath. This will get you out of your head and into the body, and will intentionally slow down your threat system which is likely to be in overdrive.  

It’s also very important to communicate how you feel, so those around you are aware that you’re feeling overwhelmed and can provide support and compassion. We need each other’s care and understanding right now as dealing with these feelings alone is unlikely to be helpful to yourself and others. Ease up on yourself, and remember you’re living through a global crisis and recognise when your threat system is activated. This will likely feel as though your thoughts are being pulled away into ruminations of the past or anxiety for the future. Aim to pull your focus back into the present moment and focus on the task at hand.

It’s also important to recognise that whilst you may have temporarily lost the ability to achieve things in others areas of your life, you’re contributing to a wider effort to get through this crisis by supporting yourself, your family, friends and workplace.  

Finding a sense of meaning through this time by nurturing relationships, looking out for others facing difficulty and contributing to something bigger than yourself, will give you a sense of purpose through these long days.  

Remember, none of this is your fault 

These feelings are not your fault and are entirely normal and understandable given the circumstances we’re all facing. Our brains are programmed to recognise threat very quickly and whilst the emotions you’re experiencing may be unpleasant for you, they’re your body and mind’s way of trying to protect you during these times. Though it may not be your fault that they arise, we do need to take steps to manage them and relate to them in a way that does not overwhelm us.  

A compassionate approach to ourselves and others is an antidote to the fear and anxiety that many of us are feeling. Doing so requires us to recognise and validate the feelings we have and do all we can to alleviate and prevent them from overwhelming us and others. We’ll all have times when we feel completely overwhelmed with the challenges we’re facing, combined with this deep sense of sadness and grief that many of us are experiencing for all the things we have lost and may lose in the future.  

Allow yourself to have bad days, knowing that as with all things they will pass, and although unpleasant they are a sign that you’re connecting deeply with the things that are happening outside of you, many of which are outside your control.  

By: Kirsty Lilley, mental health specialist at wellbeing charity CABA