For those of us who worry about catching or spreading COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, every plan requires careful deliberation. Decisions often feel more complex than they were in pre-vaccine days when staying home or socializing with members of your household were the clear best options. And when you're actually out in the world, immersed in a crowd, stuck in a tight space with someone maskless, or otherwise experiencing a situation that feels threatening, your anxiety can seriously spike.
"With a seemingly never-ending series of changes, the pandemic has tested our abilities to stay calm and non-reactive," says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear and Date Smart. So, to help you stay grounded while out and about, Dr. Manly offers a few in-the-moment anxiety-busting strategies below.
5 techniques for coping with anxiety in the moment
1. Remember to breathe
One of the most effective anti-anxiety tactics is simple and free: breathe. "Breathing reduces anxiety by engaging the calming parasympathetic nervous system," says Dr. Manly. If you're feeling high baseline anxiety levels, she recommends taking frequent timeouts to center yourself through breathwork. "Use simple four-count breathing exercises—breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and exhale to a count of four—to keep your mind in the present," she advises.
2. Create a gratitude mantra (and recite it)
"The more you stay in a place of gratitude, the less anxious and stressed you'll feel," says Dr. Manly. To help you get to that place, she recommends creating a gratitude mantra you can repeat morning, noon, and night. This can be one singular mantra that feels uplifting, or you can change it throughout the day, or week, or whatever works best for you.
Sure, gratitude mantras can feel forced, but they encourage you to shift perspective in a way that helps ease your mind, so you feel less overwhelmed by negative circumstances. For example, it might help you move from the perspective of "This situation is terrifying!" to "I'm grateful I have a vaccine that's protecting me from the worst outcomes of COVID-19, I'm grateful that breakthrough infections are rare, and I'm grateful that I have access to health care if I should need it."
3. Face and express how you're feeling
If you're in a situation where you feel a bit anxious, it's okay to acknowledge and examine your emotions. "It’s natural to feel frustrated, angry, sad, or irritated—especially as the Delta variant brings on a new set of concerns," says Dr. Manly, adding that you can face your feelings by talking to friends, writing your thoughts in a journal (or your notes app), or scheduling time to chat with your therapist. Any of these options can be a great first step to better coping with situations that arise. It might seem like you're the only one struggling, expressing yourself may help you discover that you're not alone.
4. Take a walk
When your anxiety becomes acutely unbearable, or even if it's just background buzz sabotaging your focus, Dr. Manly says it can be helpful to take a stroll. "If you’re feeling anxious or stressed, take yourself on a calming walk to calm your nerves and boost your mood," she says. "Research shows that a mere 15-minute walk can boost your mood for up to three hours."
In fact, all exercise is beneficial for your mental health; one 2019 study found that just 90 minutes of physical activity per week significantly prevented the development of depression, while another study showed that participation in household chores reduced participants' bad mental health days by 11.8 percent. So if you're feeling mentally unwell—anxious, depressed, or otherwise unbalanced, move as much as you can. And if you're in a crowded area and you find your anxiety rising, it's fine to walk right out of the situation.
5. Keep doing the things that have worked all along
As we continue to navigate our new normal, try to remember that you likely have good coping techniques in your arsenal. Over the last year, we've highlighted lots of expert-backed methods for the situations you might be experiencing: installing new boundaries around socializing, dealing with people who won't get vaccinated, scaling back media consumption, prioritizing (safe) socializing, making plans for the future that you can look forward to (even if the future date at which you can live them is currently uncertain). So even though the scenarios you find yourself in might grow more complicated, try to remember that you're not new to this—you have experience navigating these challenges.
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