A 5-step plan to fight re-entry anxiety

Chapman uses an acronym to break down a set of skills using cognitive behavioral therapy to manage strong emotions through the re-entry process: FIGHT, as in fight COVID-19 anxiety.

F: Focus on what you can control.

While there’s a lot of uncertainty associated with COVID-19, and anxiety and uncertainty go hand in hand, he said, there are actually a number of elements we can control. Those include how much media coverage we allow ourselves to watch and how much we talk about it. We can also control the things we can do in our immediate environment, and we can follow CDC guidelines as it relates to social distancing. This focus will give us a sense of control and predictability, he said, that will help us manage anxiety much more effectively.

I: Identify negative thoughts

While negative thoughts are inevitable right now, those that are catastrophic in nature, or that are predictive — as in ‘this is going to happen to me’ or ‘I know that this won’t end anytime soon,’ create intense emotions, Chapman said. An important skill is to identify those negative thoughts and recognize that they contribute to maintaining strong emotions.

G: Generate alternative thoughts

This isn’t about positive thoughts, necessarily, Chapman explained, but coming up with more flexible thoughts. “It’s not a ‘you got this, attaboy’ sort of thing. What if you feel like you don’t got this?”

He recommends coming up with what he calls a retrieval cue, something that reminds you to remain in uncomfortable situations. That can be an image or a small statement — Chapman likes to use an anchor. “It’s a reminder of being flexible, being present, not escaping, that triggers the brain to recall the right things to do and say in that situation, and helps you remain.”

“I create a hierarchy of social situations that are uncomfortable, identify my thoughts in advance, and then become more flexible in those thoughts,” he explained. That cue “reminds me of anxiety being harmless, of anxiety being adaptive and helpful, and I ride the wave as opposed to fleeing.”

H: Highlight adaptive behaviors

Chapman recommends finding behaviors you can engage in to help navigate strong emotions. That could be exercise, mindfulness, and meditation, or connecting with family and friends even if it’s via technology.

A critical adaptive behavior is anchoring in the present, he said. Say you’re in a crowded subway car and feel anxiety rising, a technique to use in the moment is breathing in through the nose for four seconds and out through the mouth for six. “That stimulates heart lung synchronization, so now you’re anchored and grounded in the present moment,’ he said. “And then you do what I call a three point check: What am I thinking right now? What am I feeling in my body right now? What am I doing, or feel like doing right now — and it might be I feel like peacing out and escaping immediately. Well, am I reacting to what’s happening right now, or to a future path? The bottom line is, I need to respond to what’s happening in the present moment.”

Following the situation, ask yourself what you learned, Chapman said. “Your brain learns a new non-threatening association despite how you feel in that context. So it’s not about stress reduction. It’s about learning something new, learning that I can tolerate discomfort, learning that this sky isn’t actually going to crack and learning that it might be better than I expected it to be.”

T: Teach

Arguably the most important element is to teach someone else to do the same thing, Chapman said. “We’re all in this fight together. If we band together and use the same skills and strategies. I think that we will make it through together.”

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