Before I get into strategies to quell 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 of all, being anxious is normal during periods of the unknown. 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 here.
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 we owe much gratitude to our amygdala.
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 physically 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
It’s time to relax after you have implemented the necessary health precautions and made the appropriate modifications to your daily schedule. After that, it is time to un-enroll 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 “big dogs” 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 amygdala is a bit primitive in that it doesn’t know the difference between an internal/external or real/perceived threat of danger. Why is this important to know? Because the amygdala responds to your thoughts and your conversations. If you’re spending a lot of time thinking and talking about the worst case scenario of the Coronavirus, your amygdala won’t get the message that it is safe to chill in this moment of time.
If you’re stuck in anxiety or panic, your amygdala may need a little help and encouragement to “stand down,” if you will. It needs you to focus on something else besides danger so that it can get the message that you are actually safe right now, in this moment.
A rested amygdala is actually better prepared to take appropriate action when it’s under immediate threat.
With intentional and focused attention (also known as mindfulness), your amygdala is pretty darn 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 attention away from danger and toward something that is neutral or positive, it will help to calm your system.
Without further ado, I present strategies to cope with COVID-19 anxiety.
10 Tips to Settle Coronavirus 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 no more than 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.
3. Engage the Five Senses
If your amygdala is driving the bus, you will need to recruit the help of your prefrontal cortex through focused attention. One sure fire way to do this is to bring awareness to your five senses. Notice what is happening in your immediate environment. Notice colors, sights, sounds, scents, and temperature.
4. Be Here Now
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?”
5. 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 states, like a comedy, or a hallmark movie; read a feel good book, pet the dog, or call a friend (and talk about something other than the virus).
6. Thank the Amygdala
We can all appreciate the intention behind the amygdala’s hyper-vigilance. It’s just trying to keep you and everyone else safe. If you notice the amygdala has taken you on a runaway train, put one hand on your heart and say, “I’ve already taken necessary precautions today. Thank you for having my best interest at heart. I am going to focus on something else now.”
7. Be Kind to Yourself
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. If you find that you’ve spun up and feel anxious, say something kind, “This is tough. It’s difficult to worry about all of this.” Commit to continued self-kindness through this situation.
8. Be Kind to Others
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.
There is another benefit to being kind to others. When you think of other people, it actually engages a part of your brain that calms the amygdala. When you call someone and say, “What is going on with you?” your nervous system stops orienting to danger and starts being connected to and concerned for others.
9. Excavate for your Resilience
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.
One of the silver-linings of a community-wide adversity is the experience of unity and support that got us through it.
10. Seek Help from a Professional
If you’ve 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.
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