Over the last few weeks, there has been an increase in anxiety surrounding COVID-19, especially in the last few days as it makes a more personal impact on our lives. I have had several conversations with people who have always been a rock in high stress situations and their anxiety has been triggered. Anxiety over this virus is sweeping through our nation and its time to understand and learn ways to cope with it. Overall I've noticed that there are two types of concern around COVID-19. The first is the illness itself and the health implications. The second is the impact this situation has on the economy, travel plans, and the quality of life.
Before we get into strategies on how to control the anxiety surrounding the Coronavirus, let’s first talk about what is happening in the brain and body as you notice anxiety levels rising. Having this information will help you understand how to use the benefits of feeling a little bit anxious and how to help yourself when you feel taken over by anxiety.
Some Anxiety is Normal
First, anxiety is meant to protect us, therefore, being anxious right now is a sign of health as long as it is not overtaking your life. Right now, we have concerns around the physical health and wellbeing of ourselves, our families, and our communities. With uncertainty, comes some anxiety. Give yourself and your anxious loved ones some grace to experience your own feelings.
What’s Happening in the Brain and Body?
In the most basic terms, our amygdala, located in the center of our brain, is responsible for detecting threats and danger. The amygdala is working 24 hours a day, even when we are sleeping, making sure we are safe and monitoring for any signs of danger. Information comes in through the five senses and if the amygdala detects danger, it will immediately (outside of our awareness), send a signal to rest of the brain and body that there is a potential threat.
The autonomic nervous system responds to the amygdala’s perception of danger by sending the brain and the body toward the fight, flight, or freeze response. The body responds by orienting toward the danger, narrowing our focus, releasing mobilizing stress hormones, altering digestion, increasing heart rate, and a myriad of other somatic affects.
All of these effects are imperative for sustaining life when we are under a threat of danger. So, its important that we continue allowing it to work in a healthy manner and not get out of balance or we won’t have our natural protection anymore.
The Benefits of Some Anxiety
As you might imagine, some anxiety is helpful in our current situation. Anxiety mobilizes us to take precautionary measures toward keeping us and our loved ones safe. A little extra energy in the nervous system makes sense so we are more alert, more cautious, and have a bit more focus to deal with the new unfolding situation and can take appropriate action to ensure the best possible outcome.
When to Relax
When our mind has done its job to protect us, it’s time to relax. In this instance, it is when you have implemented the necessary health precautions and made the appropriate modifications to your daily schedule. After that, it is time to disengage the amygdala and let it go back to its job of being the silent watchdog.
How do I Relax?
As mentioned above, the amygdala is scanning 24 hours a day outside of our conscious awareness to ensure our safety. When it detects danger, it deploys the adrenaline to prepare the body to protect itself. If there is not an immediate threat, we don’t need the amygdala to tell the rest of the body to prepare for danger.
It’s also important to note that the responds to your thoughts and your conversations. If you’re spending a lot of time thinking and talking about the worst-case scenario of COVID-19, your amygdala won’t get the message that it is safe in this moment of time. And it will cause panic.
If you’re stuck in anxiety or panic, your amygdala may need a little help and encouragement to relax. It needs you to focus on something else besides danger so that it can get the message that you are safe right now, in this moment. At rest, amygdala is better prepared to take appropriate action when it’s under immediate threat.
With intentional and focused attention, your amygdala is obedient. With mindfulness or observing awareness, we engage our prefrontal cortex (PFC), which releases calming peptides to settle the amygdala, all of which sends the signal to the brain and the body, that we are safe. With focused attention, orienting your focus away from danger and toward something that is neutral or positive, it will help to calm your system.
Now that we understand a little more about how anxiety works, here are some strategies to cope with COVID-19 anxiety.
1. Limit Exposure to Media
Being informed is important. It allows you to make important decisions to keep you and your family safe. Pick two reliable sources of information and check them once per day. Make appropriate adjustments to your daily schedule and then leave it alone. As mentioned above, it is not helpful to your nervous system to stay plugged into the media about the Coronavirus all day; everyday.
2. Be Intentional with Thoughts and Words
After you’ve gotten the update for the day, made decisions accordingly, and taken appropriate action, be intentional about how much time you spend thinking about the virus and talking about it with others. As mentioned, your amygdala is responding to what you think and talk about. Change your conversations to lighter conversations, focus on work or laugh at a joke.
3. Be Present
If you’re stuck in a negative feedback loop of anxious thoughts, emotions, and body sensations, you’re likely experiencing a little amygdala hijacking. The tendency from this place is to ruminate about the worst-case scenario. With focused attention on the present moment and grounding, you can orient your brain back to the safety that is to be had in this moment. You can ask yourself reframing questions such as, “What is safe right now?” or “What is ok right now?”
4. Distract Yourself
There are many ways to distract yourself. As mentioned above, your amygdala responds to what you are focused on. Watch a movie that elicits positive feeling, like a rom com, comedy, or a hallmark movie; read a feel good book, play a game with your family, pet the dog, or call a friend (and talk about something other than the virus).
5. Keep as Normal of Schedule as Possible
Even though this virus is changing our activities it is important to keep yourself to a normal schedule. If you are working, continue to go into work. If you are working at home, keep your work hours the same as if you were going into the office. Scheduling brings normalcy and stability to our lives and will help keep your household calm. Plan activities for your children as they are home from school that are part of a daily schedule. The family tension will go down along with everyone’s anxiety.
6. Demonstrate Self-Compassion
Your first reaction to your struggle is your own internal reaction. If that is one of kindness and compassion, it just makes everything else easier. If you judge yourself or your anxiety, it adds another layer of suffering. When you find yourself being anxious, soothe yourself with words like, “This is tough. It’s difficult to worry about all of this.” Commit to continued self-kindness through this situation.
7. Be Part of the Community
Even though we are to observe social distance, it is important to our mental health to be part of the community and engage with others. Reach out to people around you. When you engage with others, your nervous system stops orienting to danger and starts being connected to others. If you have friends or family that is over 70, ask if you can go shopping for them. If you know someone that is quarantined, reach out to them and extend emotional support. Call, FaceTime, email, or text them. Let them know that you are thinking of them. Continue to stay connected and nurture your support system.
8. Remind Yourself of Your Strengths
What emotional, mental, or physical mountains have you climbed in the past? What have you been faced with and then made it through? If you’ve made it this far in your life, you’ve had to overcome some obstacles to get here today. Know that the same grit and strength that got you through that will get you through this.
9. Practice Your Faith
Many of us had our faith community cancel our services this weekend to help protect us all. Unfortunately protecting our bodies can sometimes hurt our minds. Connecting with your faith is essential to regulating your mind and body. Take time to connect with nature, reach out to your faith community to offer support, and exercise your own spiritual practices.
10. Seek Help from a Professional
If you have noticed that your anxiety has skyrocketed, and you just can’t seem to bring it down, seek the support of a trusted professional to help you get settled. If you’re concerned about leaving your home, request a video session. Most mental health professionals, myself included, are offering telehealth options during this time. For more information on booking a session, click here.
Overall remember that we are in this together. We can come out of this global crisis, stronger and more connected.
Trish Pauls, MA RP