4 ways to reduce anxiety and social isolation

By Tamera Loerzel

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has turned the world upside down. This upheaval, compounded by social distancing and stay-at-home orders, has evoked feelings of fear, insecurity, lack of control, and anger.

A Harvard Business Review article equates these feelings to grief and explains the nonlinear way grief manifests, which means that you might find yourself bouncing between these many emotions at different times. This array of emotions can be intense for some and may cause increased anxiety coupled with feelings of isolation.

Where do we go from here, and how do we help ourselves and our team reduce feelings of anxiety and social isolation? Start with acceptance. This sounds simple but isn’t necessarily easy. Acceptance begins when we acknowledge what is happening in the present situation, versus how we wish it would be, or our worry and concern about what might happen. To practice, we might say: We are experiencing a pandemic right now. Our lives and work have changed. We have fears and worry about our health, finances, business continuity, the economy, and more. We may be experiencing anger, fear, or other emotions.

Acceptance is simply acknowledging the current state and your current emotions for what they are. Don’t invalidate your feelings — your own or those of others — or make them wrong. Avoid casting blame. Could some things have been handled better or communicated more timely and transparently? Perhaps. But that is in the past, and the focus now needs to be on the present. Spending time on what or who is wrong will only sap energy and increase stress.

Let’s explore four strategies to help reduce anxiety, stress, and feelings of social isolation that this pandemic may be causing for you and your team:

1. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is defined as focusing on the present moment, and it is a great way to manage anxiety and reduce other negative feelings or reactions you may be experiencing. While it may seem counterintuitive, the present moment is all we have; the past is gone and the future is yet to be. Clearing our mind of past regrets or future worry will help us be clear in the present so we can see a pathway and take action. Two ways you can practice mindfulness to bring yourself back to the present moment is by breathing and simply noticing your thoughts.

Practice a simple breathing exercise that involves a four-count inhale, hold it for a count of two, and then a four-count exhale. Do this three or four times in a row — at your desk, outside, or before you go to sleep. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or your mind is racing, pause, take deep breaths, and notice your thoughts, without judgment. Just observe them like clouds moving through your mind without assessing them, interacting with them, or trying to do something with them. Doing both — breathing and just noticing your thoughts — can reduce your feeling of anxiety and bring you back to the present moment feeling more peaceful with more clarity and energy for what to do next.

2. Cultivate a connection mindset.

With COVID-19 social distancing and stay-at-home orders, feelings of social isolation and loneliness are on the rise. According to an article in Government Executive, “It’s critically important to foster connection during the novel coronavirus pandemic.” Human connection is necessary, and we have to figure out how to connect with others while maintaining physical distance. To help reduce feelings of social isolation:

  • Check in regularly. During this time of social distancing, extroverts will be going crazy. They need outlets to communicate, socialize, and problem-solve out loud. Introverts might seem fine, but they will tend to hold things in, and that can be unhealthy because their internal dialogue will get louder and louder, escalating worry, concern, and fear without another outlet. Left uncommunicated, these concerns, worries, and fear can manifest in withdrawing, lack of productivity, and even depression. Find ways to help both extroverts and introverts express themselves and be in communication with others.
  • Assign your career coaches or your partners and managers to specific people that they check in with daily either via phone or videoconference. Small talk is important during this time, though it may not feel comfortable for some. Provide examples of questions to ask, such as, “How are you doing today?,” “What support do you need?,” and “What are you doing for fun and to maintain connections with family and friends?” Be careful not to launch into deliverables, client demands, and problems without first understanding where they’re at and what they’re dealing with that day.

  • Validate emotions and feelings. Make it safe for your partners and team to express concern, worry, or fear — and maybe even tears. When they can share their feelings, they can move closer to acceptance and then action. It also helps to reduce the tendency to spiral into negative feelings or fears that imagine worst possible outcomes. If thoughts escalate toward the worst possible outcome, shift them (and what you’re saying to others) to hopeful outcomes, such as “We will flatten the curve” and “We will get through this together.” You can apply this to business decisions you’re facing, too. For example, “We’ll try not to cut staff and put bonuses on hold instead,” “We’ll shift our service delivery model to virtual so we can complete these engagements,” or “We’ll put that initiative on hold for right now and revisit it this summer.” Just make sure the positive statements are true ones. Don’t say you won’t cut staff when you might cut staff soon.
  • Find ways to socialize together. My ConvergenceCoaching colleague Brianna Johnson shared strategies in the article “Maintaining a Strong Culture While Working Remote,” including holding virtual happy hours and lunch hours, playing games together, celebrating victories and good news, and other ways to maintain office traditions while the team is working remotely. Try to maintain some of the practices you would normally do in the office — just get creative with how you can do them digitally. Having fun and playing together are important right now.

3. Communicate and then communicate some more.

One of the best weapons to promote acceptance and reduce anxiety is communicating information, decisions, and even fears and concerns as they arise.

  • Share the facts. Information is coming fast, and it’s difficult to keep up and sort through what’s most important and valid. Dwelling on the unknown and uncertainty is difficult and can cause increased worry and fear, and perpetuate feelings of lack of control. Sharing what you know now and as you solidify decisions can help you and your team take action. As more information becomes available, communicate it and shift plans as necessary. Taking even small steps can help preserve some sense of control and keep you mindful that there are things you can do to address the situation.
  • Don’t wait until you have all the information or have all the answers figured out. The situation is changing too fast — day by day and in some cases hour by hour. We have to be nimble during these times. Remember, the adage is “information is power” not “all the information is power.” It’s the information you have at the moment that allows you and your team to act.
  • Vary your communication. In addition to the differences between extroverts and introverts, people assimilate information differently, too. Be sure to deliver your communication in different ways, such as via Zoom meetings, emails, Skype for Business or Microsoft Teams, small group discussions, and one-on-one conversations. Be careful not to communicate solely based on your preference, or some of your team members will feel like they “never heard that” or “were not in the loop.” It’s more important than ever that you communicate frequently via different media that appeal to the varied communication preferences of your team (and clients).

4. Practice compassion.

Flexibility is key, and letting go of old norms and expectations (like learning how to be maximally productive in your new home environment with kids and dog noises in the background) requires some level of acceptance now. Practice compassion first with yourself and then with others as you navigate this new normal. You can do so by:

  • Acknowledging we’re all doing our best during these unprecedented times.
  • Being flexible in expectations and willing to negotiate them to make it work for everyone (capture those expectations in writing to provide clarity and agreement).
  • Considering the impact on others as you make decisions.
  • Communicating with empathy and kindness.
  • Acknowledging and appreciating others — sometimes for just showing up, remaining positive, and contributing to the team.

Feelings of anxiety, isolation, hopelessness, and many other emotions are to be expected. We can mitigate them by practicing — and sharing — these strategies with our team (they can be beneficial for your clients, too).

For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how CPAs can handle challenges related to the pandemic, visit the JofA’s coronavirus resources page.

Tamera Loerzel is a partner with ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.

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