Is anxiety causing you to worry and overthink the small stuff in the third lockdown? An expert explains what’s going on and how you can help ensure it doesn’t spiral out of control.
Does my best friend hate me? Was sending that email three years ago a terrible idea? Should I contact my first boyfriend? Am I annoying everybody by complaining about how bored I am? Why is nobody replying to my 11-minute voice notes? Am I going to lose my flat? Will anyone come to my birthday Zoom party?
These are the types of questions that have led me to lose sleep during lockdown. There have been times when I have laid in bed for hours, staring at the ceiling and playing out scenarios that have and have not happened. Admittedly, I was a bit of an overthinker in the pre-pandemic world (hello Capricorn!). But now, as I spend long, cold nights and weekends on my own rattling around my flat, I get in a flap over nothing way more frequently.
I know I’m not the only one. My WhatsApp receives daily voice notes that are now basically just streams of consciousness from my friends and family.
One friend gives me hourly updates on her flatmate because they’re not getting on right now. Another said she was freaking out because her pal hadn’t replied within three hours of messaging her. And a third admitted to constantly checking the location and “last active” status of a guy she ended things with months ago. Perhaps most bizarrely, my brother spent a good minute reflecting on the fact he didn’t eat enough mince pies at Christmas.
Is the monotony and boredom of the third lockdown making us overthink every little thing? Is it a way of creating drama to break up this groundhog day feeling? I spoke with an expert to find out what’s going on.
Dr Becky Spelman, a psychologist at Private Therapy Clinic tells me that worrying in small doses is usually a good thing. However, the pandemic has sent most people into “fight, flight or freeze” mode, and this increases cortisol levels in the body, which is the hormone that helps us tackle stress.
“But this stress has been going on for quite a long time,” she says. “We are all in a situation where we have to worry to keep ourselves and other people safe, so everyone’s anxiety levels have been increased.
“Worry is something that we use to problem solve, so it’s helpful to worry for a few minutes to get through a challenging situation (like crossing a busy road, for example). But we can over-apply this problem-solving strategy and end up worrying too much without actually arriving at the solution we need to let the worry go.
“Essentially, the pandemic means that a lot of people are in this state of worry all of the time.”
Constant worrying means that people are getting more anxious than before, according to Spelman, and this is what is causing us to overthink everything.
“We experience a negative emotion when we’re anxious, and that means our thoughts easily go towards the ‘glass is half empty’ perspective,” she says. “We tend to put a negative slant on everything that comes into our minds and start to worry a lot more.
“We have a greater volume of negative thoughts, which helps to explain why people are overthinking more at the moment – we are at a critical point in the pandemic. And it’s essentially causing paranoia in our minds, whereas we wouldn’t usually be over-analysing things in such an unhelpful way.”
Although it makes total sense why we’re all overthinking the small stuff at the moment, there are still things we can do to help minimise feelings of anxiety and make sure our minds don’t spiral out of control.
“If you’re worrying excessively – which is around one to two minutes at a time – then you want to practice letting the worry go,” Spelam says. “That can be a very difficult thing to do, so you might have to implement different types of strategies to find the way that is easiest for you.
“One way is distraction: focusing on a task or activity. Another is to practice mindfulness or do some breathwork. We often find that mindfulness is the best way to let our worries go: we stand back without judging ourselves, we accept how we’re feeling and start treating our thoughts in a different way.”
She adds: “It’s also quite good to use a worry tree (you can find an example with a quick Google search), which is basically a technique that helps you figure out if your worry is actually a real worry. If it is, you can work out when and how you are going to take action on it, then move on. But if it’s a hypothetical worry, which is something that may or not happen in the future but is not imminent, then you can give yourself permission to let it go because it’s not a real situation.”
Spelman also explains that worry is a behaviour that we can take control of without even realising, and this is why it’s important to know we can learn to re-address our thoughts. But, if none of these techniques seem to quieten the worry, she advises you to speak to a therapist about your thoughts.
So the next time I get into a panic over something that happened with someone I used to know years ago or a situation with a friend that hasn’t even happened at all, I’ll be sure to stop, take a deep breath and put some perspective on the situation. And I’ll distract myself by doing the thing I love best: putting my WhatsApp on mute and reading a good book in a scorching hot bubble bath, pretending I live in a worry-free world of soapy bubbles.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS list of mental health helplines and organisations.
For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com.