Pandemic Anxiety

Human beings aren’t really meant to be able to respond very well to global pandemics. Our nervous systems are made to respond to more immediate dangers- not strange, ominous and invisible world-wide ones.

We have this nifty thing called a “fight or flight” response that activates a part of the brain called the amygdala, which tells us that something is a probable threat to our immediate safety and that we must get out of its way. Think of a tiger or bear prowling in the bushes- as soon as we detect it, our heart rate goes up, we get a rush of adrenaline and other stress hormones, our digestion processes stop- all so that we can either sprint out of the situation, or pick up a stone and fight back.

This system helped us to avoid the real danger of predators, and evolved when we lived life much more simply, and were exposed to more dangers such as this.  Fortunately and unfortunately, the system errs on the side of caution, and will frequently activate when it thinks there’s a threat even if there’s not. Basically, “it’s better to be safe than sorry”, however this also means that we experience a lot of unnecessary stress.

This system was “designed” to respond to immediate threats to our survival, and today it’s being activated by a pandemic, leaving us in a state of prolonged stress response. A pandemic isn’t really something our survival brain was meant to comprehend. Ideally, as long as we are taking reasonable precautions, we have no need to be stressed- this stress response is only helpful in getting us out of immediate danger, and beyond that, it starts to cause real problems.

Think of our stress response system as a motivator- it helps motivate us to get out of danger. And once we’ve gotten away from the real danger, it should ideally turn off again. But that’s not how it works, for so many of us. This is what anxiety is- a nervous system that kind of gets stuck in the on position. Now, many of us do face very real stressors- potential job loss, family conflict, being stuck at home with the kids… and so anxiety is a very real and normal response to these situations. But anxiety doesn’t actually serve us well, because it interferes with our ability to think critically- when our stress response is activated, we go into fight or flight, and try to get out of the situation, and because this is part of our “survival brain”, we don’t have access to the prefrontal cortex, which is where thoughtful decision making takes place. So even in very challenging times, unless there’s an immediate threat to our safety, it’s not very helpful to be in a state of stress response.

Unfortunately, our survival brain doesn’t really understand this, and when we read news articles about scary viruses, or stores running out of toilet paper, or pretty much any other form of unpleasant news, our stress response system often gets activated, and we go into crisis mode. Our survival brain cannot easily differentiate between an immediate danger and something more generalized such as a statistical possibility of a viral transmission. This system was created for fast action, but when it stays on too long, it has devastating consequences- mental and physiological pain and suffering. We get stomach and gastrointestinal pain, fatigue, lots of catastrophic worry and a host of other ailments.

For some of us who’ve experienced struggles with anxiety in the past, this pandemic has really intensified things. And for others, this feeling of prolonged anxiety is something completely new, foreign and unexpected. Right now, most people are struggling with this, because all of us are hardwired with a stress response system that was not created to deal with a global crisis!

Because our alarm systems are going off continuously, we need to be active about practicing things that will disengage them. A couple of things- stress does help to get you out of danger, remember that- you should be mindful of the very real dangers that exist today, and practice social distancing and good hygiene! But once you’ve taken care of the basics, by practicing reasonable precautions, then beyond this your anxiety is no longer helpful. Basically, once you’re out of immediate harm’s way, it’s time to find ways to calm yourself.

Limit your intake of news!

  • Remember that news articles will trigger your brain to perceive an immediate threat, even if there isn’t one right in front of you
  • This includes news on social media. It’s a great place to connect with friends, but stay away from the scary stuff and conflictual or argumentative posts

Do things that are grounding (that help make you feel connected to what’s happening right now… “in the moment”)

  • Take a break from the computer and go for a walk (safely of course)
  • If you can connect with nature, that’s even better

Notice and take opportunities for humor

  • Humor and laughter help to interrupt the crisis response, and to put things into perspective
  • Humor shows up on even on the smallest scale, and keeping an eye out for it also helps keeping you engaged with the present moment

Do a guided meditation

  • Go to youtube and find a calming relaxation practice

Find time to do something that has worked to bring you calm in the past

  • Like cooking, gardening, etc.

Connect with others who are calming to you

  • Human connection is vital, and make sure you take time to get support from your network.

Get Support!

  • Mental health services are being provided on-line (phone or computer). This is called “telehealth” and is an easy convenient way of getting support during these stressful times. Everyone can use an outlet to process their frustrations, fears and concerns, and therapy can be helpful in getting support in finding ways of staying connected.