Worry, stress, and anxiety have been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Routines and plans for the future have been interrupted by shutdowns and social restrictions. Fear for loved ones’ health and safety has caused the thoughts of “what if” to be on our minds more often. Even if you weren’t much of a worrier before the pandemic, it can be difficult to manage anxiety now. 

But excessive worry can actually weaken the immune system. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to manage the worries that pop up throughout the day. Practice these four strategies to manage anxiety. 

1. Keep a worry journal.

A worry journal allows you to manage anxiety by recording your fears and then re-reading them at a later date. The act of writing about your worries can decrease the frequency of intrusive thoughts and improve memory and cognition. Research shows it can also free up your mental space for more productive pursuits.

This exercise can also help you reflect on how many of your past worries have actually come true. They rarely do. Over time, you can start to nip worrisome thoughts in the bud by reminding yourself of the difference between your worries and reality. 

2. Schedule time to worry.

Scheduling time to worry can help manage anxiety and reduce the frequency of anxious thoughts throughout the day. Give yourself 15 to 30 minutes each day to do nothing but worry. Pencil it in your calendar like any other appointment. Then try to recognize the appearance of “unscheduled worries.” Remind yourself that it’s not “worry time” yet and do your best to push those thoughts aside to focus on the task at hand. (Staying busy also helps decrease worries.)

When worry time arrives, set a timer and allow yourself to think about, talk about, or write down all those things that were bothering you. Can’t remember them? Great! Have a lot on your mind? Let the chirp of the timer be your cue to wait until tomorrow’s worry time to continue your train of thought. 

3. Let your inner monologue rest.

Healthy distractions allow your mind to focus on the present moment, forcing worries to take a backseat. Discover what works best for you as a distraction. For example, if negative thoughts intrude when you try to relax, consider listening to a podcast or streaming a TV show or movie in the background to engage your thoughts. A quieter solution is to practice mindfulness. If your mind wanders toward negative thoughts while making dinner, for example, focus intently on the appearance, smell, taste, sound, and feel of the food to stay in the present moment. It’s a reliable way to manage anxiety.

4. Prioritize sleep hygiene.

“Nighttime anxiety” strikes when worries flood your mind at night. The problem seems to stem from the lack of stimulation and distraction at night, leaving us alone with our thoughts. Some researchers also believe our brains evolved to analyze threatening situations as a matter of survival. These negative, critical thoughts also tend to appear at night when distractions disappear, and we finally have time for self-reflection. Regardless of its exact cause, nighttime anxiety — and all anxiety, for that matter – can get worse with sleep deprivation. Healthy sleep strategies include consistently going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, creating a bedroom environment conducive to sleep (dark, cool, and quiet), and avoiding caffeine before bed. Reading or listening to a soothing book before bed is also very immersive and can serve as a cue to calm.