By Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Pity your brain. This unprecedented epoch we are experiencing is playing havoc with our most vital organ, the one that is designed to act as the air traffic controller of our bodies during the impenetrable fog of a lockdown.
Our brain through our nervous system is constantly evaluating and detecting risk with the ultimate goal being safety. This occurs at a primitive level within our brain without our conscious awareness. The primary element that challenges safety and stability is uncertainty. The brain is wired to detect fear and we have an overwhelming amount of fear-generating information right now.
COVID-19 has brought the world to its knees. First, there is the physical threat of a virus that is undetectable and about which we are learning as it unfolds. Second, is the constant mental anguish caused by the uncertainty about the future, even about tomorrow.
As a result, we are seeing extreme levels of stress, anxiety, and incremental increases in depression and addiction. The tidal wave of negative information and emotion creates a continuous brain hijack (as the brain works to manage this threat) and overwhelms our cognitive processing. This stress keeps us in a fight or flight state, affecting core brain capacities such as thinking and decision making. Hoarding of supplies and increased aggression in people are some observable results of these affected capacities.
So if you are feeling stressed, anxious, and exhausted, it’s completely normal under these circumstances.
Jump To Acceptance
In fact, Dr. David Kessler, who collaborated with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on her treatise, On Grief and Grieving, says that what many Americans are feeling is grief. He says we have lost our normalcy, our future plans and our connection to others, ironically in a collective grief experience.
Worse yet is the uncertainty that imperils not just our health but our financial stability. We don’t know when this catastrophe will end – could this go on for six months, a year? – and that is flooding many of us with anxiety. Dr. Kessler calls this “anticipatory grief.”
Dr. Kessler recommends that we consider the six stages of grief that his co-author famously enumerated and jump as quickly as we can to acceptance. “We find control in acceptance: I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can work virtually,” he told the Harvard Business Review.
Four Strategies to Tame Stress
Dr. David Whitehouse, the psychiatric medical director for Able To, a leading provider of virtual behavioral health care, told the Total Brain podcast of four keys to confronting the anxiety sparked by the COVID-19 crisis.
He recommends we identify what we are feeling; avoid catastrophizing, i.e., steer clear of talking ourselves into depression; focus on the positive; and engage our creative right brain.
We have about 50,000 thoughts a day, that’s 2,100 thoughts an hour.
Positive thinking has long been known to improve our overall outlook and boost our performance. Barbara Frederickson, a psychology professor and researcher at the University of North Carolina, has demonstrated that positive thinking opens us to more options than does negative or neutral thoughts. Rather than wallowing in negative thoughts and emotions, simply reminding ourselves that this situation is temporary can have significant salutary effects physiologically and emotionally.
“You can, in fact, drive that negative analytic off the table,” Dr. Whitehouse says.
Physical exercise is an elixir for stress as well. Pushing ourselves physically focuses our attention on the moment and boosts our depression-fighting endorphins. In fact, exercise is often prescribed for patients with mild to moderate clinical depression.
Deep breathing has a similar impact on us physically. It stimulates the vagus nerve, which acts as a crossing guard at the corner of flight and flight. By calming the fight or flight response, the vagus nerve allows our body to relax and our vital signs to settle back to normal. Research shows that our heart can synchronize with our breathing, so that reduced respirations produces a slower heart rate and lower blood pressure.
People who struggle with anxiety often feel that their lives are out of control. In fact, many who struggle with anxiety attempt to control every facet of their lives; when their plans fail, anxiety often comes back with a vengeance.
A relatively simple way to overcome this problem is to establish a routine. Setting a schedule and applying some self-discipline to stick with it allows us to control our daily activities to the extent possible. Adding this structure to daily living can also unlock additional free time to enjoy other things.
There is also one common sense measure we can all take to avoid driving ourselves crazy: limit our exposure to the news. At this point, there isn’t much new to learn about COVID-19 other than that we must isolate ourselves, wash our hands and practice social distancing. All the speculation about how much worse it will get or how long we must wait for normal life to resume, or for the new normal to unfold, produces anxiety without insight. So in this time, limiting exposure to news and information is self-preservation, and while I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend this, less information means more peace of mind.
What these prescriptions have in common is that they are under our control. If we commit to accepting the current circumstances, thinking positively, challenging our bodies and minds, avoiding the news and simply taking a deep breath, we can calm our brains and reduce our psychic pain.