October 13


COVID-19 Anxiety: How to apply your emergency brake when anxiety surges

By Zoe Clements

October 13, 2020

Oh anxiety how I hate thee.

My heart races, my breath shortens, my tummy summersaults like an olympic athlete, I feel sweaty and my brain won't stop whirling. At best it's uncomfortable but at its worst it feels like my entire brain and body has been taken over by an unstoppable anxiety gremlin.

Odds are if you have been watching the Emergency daily briefings from the UK government or scrolling through the news you will recognise some of these anxiety symptoms. Our brain and body are wired to create this reaction and unfortunately they are in overdrive at the moment.

Whilst it's natural to feel more anxious than usual, a surge in anxiety is super uncomfortable. Thankfully though there a few really simple techniques which can help us manage our anxiety through these turbulent times.

I refer to these techniques as applying the emergency brake because, as soon as we recognise our anxiety surging, we need to slow it down by applying the brakes.

How to recognise the signs of anxiety

Anxiety shows up in our thoughts, emotions, body and unhelpful coping behaviours. Which of these signs are familiar to you?

  • Thoughts: Rumination; looping thoughts; over worrying / overthinking; difficultly concentrating; poor memory
  • Emotions: Fear
  • Body sensations: A spike of adrenaline; tense; wide eyed; short breaths; upset tummy; rapid heart beat; cold hands; tingling legs; sweaty; nausea
  • Unhelpful behaviours: Comfort eating; numbing with alcohol; shopping for 72 toilet rolls etc

How to apply your emergency brake

Below are two simple techniques I often share with clients to help manage the moments when their anxiety begins to surge. Give them both a try and see how you feel afterwards.

Technique 1: Belly breathing

First up is breathing. I know you have been breathing since you came into this world but do you know how to breathe properly? Stick with me on this, you see most people take shallow breaths into their chest and only use about a third of their lungs. To check if you do this, look down at your chest, is your chest rising rather than your belly?

When we breathe properly, we fully engage our diaphragm thus using all our lung capacity. This is very important because the additional oxygen we breathe in tells our brain we are safe and it slows down the surge. We can, therefore, use our breath like a brake to stop anxiety.

Try taking 3 deep belly breaths now:

It feels really good, doesn’t it? 

This simple technique is fab, so whenever you listen to Boris giving a briefing or start to feel a surge of anxiety then take 3 deep breaths. To feel even better, try belly breathing for 3 minutes. It's harder than it sounds but the benefits are amazing.

Technique 2: Grounding 5-4-3-2-1

Next up, we have the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. Again this may seem too simple to work but it does slow down anxiety surges because it distracts our brain. Basically anxiety flows where focus goes so if your senses are focused on the BBC news updates it's going to create surges of anxiety. However if we distract our senses with this simple technique then our brain thinks its safe and reduces the anxiety being released in our body.

This method is great for all ages and can be especially helpful if you want to help your little ones calm down.

LOOK for 5 things you can see around you

  • Examples: Pictures on the wall; cars or birds passing the window; Pick 5 pictures on your phones that make you smile

TOUCH 4 things around you or on your body

  • Examples: The soft material on your top; the fluffy cushion on the sofa; the thick socks on your feet; the smooth skin on the back of your hand; Teddy bears ear; the dogs fur

LISTEN to 3 sounds around you

  • Examples: A clock ticking; distant planes overhead; birds singing; the kettle boiling; creaky floorboards

SMELL 2 things around you

  • Examples: Your favourite perfume; your deodorant; the distant food smells wafting around; fabric detergent; coffee!

TASTE 1 thing

  • Examples: Slowly suck a toffee or pop a Fisherman’s Friend in your mouth and embrace the sensations!

This simple technique can be used anytime, anywhere, so next time you need to bring a little calm try this and see how it helps.


Being able to manage our anxiety isn't always easy especially in the face of a Pandemic but applying the brake little and often can take the edge off those thoughts and body sensations and leave us feeling more in control of our response.

For more tips and techniques on managing anxiety please follow me on LinkedIn.

Zoe Clements

About the author

Zoe Clements is an experienced BACP Accredited Counsellor and Author specialising in overthinking, anxiety, people pleasing and pesky self doubt.

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