It is becoming harder and harder to keep a positive frame of mind and make informed decisions in the current scenario. In “anxious” and uncertain times like these it becomes only too easy for all of us to contribute to the chaos and panic that surrounds us. However, if we understand how our brain works a little better we can all find ways to break the cycle of anxiety and minimise the risk of spreading it to others. In this regard, anxiety and its close cousin panic are quite similar to a virus that gets transmitted from one person to another.
I also wanted to let you know that I am here for you and I am planning to do a few things that I know will help you
- I am changing the content of my 30 days of online mini training that I had initially planned on FB; instead, it will be geared towards the steps that we can take to deal with our current crisis- I will update you on the format of the same
- I hosted a webinar “COVID-19 – awareness and management” , you can watch it using the link below
When faced with any difficult and uncertain situation, our brain goes into “alarm” mode as a normal part of our survival mechanism honed over millions of years. However, there are times when our emotions take over our brain completely hijacking the rational and thinking parts and prompt us to make decisions from a place of fear and anxiety.
Just like you, I have the same fears whether it is about my family’s wellbeing or how our future will be affected. It is only because of years of practising that I am able to (at most times) notice the “smoke alarm” switching on in my brain when I am watching or reading the news about the crisis situation that we are all in today.
Our brains do not like uncertainty and not knowing all the answers given that we do not really have a clear solution to what we are facing at the moment, we will have to find a way to live with this level of uncertainty.
Of course, we are aware of certain steps like social distancing that is merited to stop the spread of the virus and other hygiene measures like handwashing that need to be implemented. However, this post is about the mental and emotional toll that a crisis situation takes on us.
Becoming aware of when we are becoming anxious and NOT trying to talk ourselves out of it or try to suppress it is key here. This kind of awareness helps to switch off the panic mode that is really a reflection of the survival instinct that kicks in any time we are faced with ANY kind of threat whether real or otherwise. And this time as we all know, the threat is very, very real.
The primitive part of our brain is the more ancient part that has evolved over millenia while the thinking part of our brain (prefrontal cortex) has developed only recently in evolutionary terms and is responsible for thinking, planning and creativity. This part of the brain helps us plan for our future, but if information is lacking then it simulates likely scenarios based on what it has encountered before. Thus, our brain is literally designed to be constantly looking for danger as a part of our perfectly normal survival mechanism.
The issue is that the constant barrage of negative and information is simply reinforcing and highlighting the huge amount of uncertainty that surrounds us right now. And where there is uncertainty about the future, there is anxiety.
This is a time when our thinking brain goes offline and our primitive brain takes over. It is only when our brains perceive the threat to be over that prefrontal cortex comes back online to help us make rational plans and absorb new information.
Right now for most of us, as scientists/healthcare professionals are grappling to understand and respond to this crisis, anxiety is spreading as easily as the virus from one person to another through a mechanism that is known as “social contagion” in psychology.
Given this background, I would like to offer you 5 ways that you can manage anxiety in these trying times.
Without thoughts there is no fear
Remember this: facts are neutral. Whether we encounter facts about COVID-19 or any other kind of threat, it is what we think about them that makes it real for us. And if the thoughts that we have are only that of fear and panic, then hoarding masks and sanitizers or anything else for that matter will not help anyone. It will only feed our anxiety.
Limit your exposure and pay attention to the quality of the information
While it serves us well to know what is happening regarding this COVID-19, as you probably realise by now, a constant barrage of negative information is detrimental for our mental health. It causes high levels of stress which in turn suppresses immunity. At the same time, many of the sources of information are not really credible and trustworthy.
I want you to keep in mind a few things here since this really important-
- Choose a few, limited sources of information about COVID-19 that you would like to keep yourself updated with like WHO, government agencies, health ministry etc.
- Do NOT hand over your thinking to media/news agencies whose role is to disseminate information but at the same time do it in a manner which grabs our attention and startles and highjacks our brains.
- Try and balance out the time that you spend on consuming information with at least the same or more about inspiring, positive and uplifting sources of information like books, articles and podcasts
Willpower and reasoning is not enough
Since both willpower and reasoning are part of our thinking brain, we cannot rely on it to help us in times like these. What will help is becoming aware of how you are feeling and acknowledging that without getting carried away. This kind of awareness is an important step to stop your anxiety and fear from taking over. Simply telling yourself that you are becoming anxious or scared and labelling your emotion helps you to break this stronghold.
Pause and take 5 deep breaths
Going beyond simply noticing is to pause and take a few deep breaths. This gives your thinking brain a chance to take over. Pausing to take 3-5 deep breaths can help you to stop these strong emotions from hijacking your brain. Make a conscious effort to add activities like craft or other hobbies, music and dance and other restorative practices can go a long way in reducing your stress and anxiety.
Grounding and “finding your feet”
Sometimes it becomes really difficult to find our breath when we are feeling very anxious or stressed. While our mind is constantly racing with thoughts about our future, our bodies are very much in the present moment. Hence, one of the most effective ways of grounding yourself in the present moment is to “find your feet”.
“find your feet”.
When you feel yourself getting swept away by fear and anxiety and find it difficult to pause and breathe, simply notice your feet. Notice the ground beneath your feet- is it hard, soft, warm or cold? Does the surface feel smooth or rough? Wriggle your toes and notice if there are any sensations at the bottom of your feet. If you do not feel anything, notice that too.
The other way to ground yourself is in seeing or hearing something – whether it is the sounds in your room or outside, the colour of the leaves of the trees or some other object in your room. Nature provides us with amazing options to ground ourself to the present moment- be it the sun on your face, the wind on your arms, the chirping of the birds or the greenery that surrounds you.
Finally, I want to leave you with this.
I am certainly grateful to have access to technology, information and services which are helping me deal with this situation and take care of my family. I am grateful for the opportunity I am getting to use my Health Coaching background to help disseminate useful information that benefits everyone as well as alleviates some of the emotional pain and suffering that we are all facing in some way or the other.
We are all going to figure this out together and we have to believe that a lot of things can become better because of this. Every disruption is an opportunity for learning and change. We have to decide what we want to think on purpose. Bringing forth our shared humanity and human experiences are what we need at this moment.
Finally, as you let all this sink in, may we all
support and support each other and our society and the world at large by following some simple guidelines
understand and appreciate the gravity of the situation and act accordingly
strive to take action from a place of love and compassion rather from a place of fear and scarcity