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Nigel Pizzini: Coping with anxiety in the face of uncertainty

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week which runs from 21-27 September, we caught up with Nigel Pizzini, lecturer in Social Practice and specialist counsellor, about coping with anxiety in the face of the current COVID-19 challenges.

“People may find themselves needing to adjust their thinking about being around others,” says Nigel. “They may worry about over-load or overwhelm or have desires to avoid returning to the same pace or activity of pre-COVID life. Developing confidence and tools to work through these thoughts or fears will assist people to retain a perspective that is not dominated by anxiety or undue stress.”  Here's our interview with him:


Why are people feeling particularly vulnerable at the moment?

“There’s a lot of uncertainty going round at the moment due to COVID-19 and its re-emergence and the different alert level in Auckland– it’s brought about an acute sense of vulnerability.  This year has been more impacted than usual, including a lot of natural phenomenon due to climate change that has brought things back to us, on a personal level – we can feel an unfamiliar level of personal vulneratibility when we do such simple tasks as supermarket shopping; it feels like we are putting ourselves at risk even through simple daily tasks.  We don’t know where it’s going and this makes it hard to plan. The uncertainty is playing on people more – particularly in this second lockdown.  This time it feels so different.  COVID has come back and we’re all facing the reality that it may be around for a long time.”


What are some of the ways that this stress and anxiety is manifesting itself?

“We’re all so different.  For some it’s very stressful; they’re worried about their own immunity and that of family members.  For others, it can amplify what’s already there – for those already suffering from anxiety or depression, this struggle makes it bigger and more worrying.  So how can people deal with that?  Firstly, acknowledge it. It’s understandable that it’s happening.  Name it and acknowledge it and then give yourself some empathy and compassion.”


How can we help ourselves?

“Focus on what you can be genuinely grateful for - often it’s the small things that you can appreciate.  Bring our minds back from being captured by the ‘what ifs’ and possible futures -- the only thing that’s real is what is happening now. Worrying about the future won’t change it.” 

  • Exercise is great as a stress relief. Try and get outside for a walk once a day
  • Try and switch off from work when your work day is over
  • Plenty of sleep and a balaced diet is also good for maintaining equilibrium
  • Maintain perspective –  try not to get caught up in the small stuff or captured by fears
  • Seek help if needed: We need to challenge the stigma - asking for help is a commitment to connection and support
  • Celebrate your achievements – feel a sense of accomplishment in the small things


What about people who’re feeling lonely or alone?

“The very act of being around other people can feel like putting ourselves at risk – we’ve never had that feeling before.  People are wanting to isolate.  If people are troubled by feeling isolated, there are some opportunities online.  Seek out some forums that are positive; turn to those things that interest you and seek to connect with others who share the same interests.  Find like-minded people.  Get to know your neighbours.  Pets are great for companionship and can bring a sense of connection and empathy -- consider contacting the SPCA about adoption or re-homing.”

“Volunteering our time is wonderful for a sense of self-worth and purpose.  You could do that from home – offer to organise events, do things for people online.  Food banks, church groups, just being on the other end of the phone for someone – all are a way of connecting.”


Will levels of stress abate once the alert levels decrease?

“This has been a unique Auckland experience this time around.  Will we be shunned by the rest of the country when we travel? As case numbers decrease, so the level of risk decreases. Despite needing to remain vigilant, there’ll be a sense of returning to some sense of normalcy and that sense of anxiety will gradually ease.  Being able to move more freely and regain some of our regular activities will help.  But there will be long-term repercussions for some – with anxiety caused through job losses and financial worries.”

“There’s always going to be a lingering fear now that a new cluster will spring up -- that it’ll appear out of the blue, so we do need to maintain some respect for this virus.  We’ve got to learn to live with it but not to let it stress us out – By all means, take precuations and be sensible, but don’t let it withhold us from our daily lives and activities.”


Nigel has his own practice, Narrative Pathways, specialising in counselling for boys, teenagers, men and families and is a Member registered with the New Zealand Association of Counsellors (MNZAC).  He lectures in Social Practice at Unitec’s Waitākere campus.

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