Breaking the COVID Anxiety Cycle
It goes without saying that COVID-19 put us in a precarious situation unlike anything we had ever experienced. It has turned out to be a life and death battle with an invisible virus. I don’t believe that it is an understatement that life as we knew it has changed – possibly forever. How we reacted to all of the mandates being thrust upon us may have determined how well we survived this crisis.
Anxiety still reigns supreme. We were under stay-a- home orders; travel watch orders; told to wear masks and gloves; wash our hands twenty times per day and practice social distancing. All of these precautions were necessary to bring this pandemic under some control. There are still people who think that this was a hoax and an infringement on their rights. This group's thinking and actions possibly threatened all of us.
A number of years ago I worked at a uranium processing plant. I ran the lab in the medical department and saw every employee who worked there come through for annual physicals. This plant cleaned ‘green salt’ which was used in the first steps of processing the uranium. It was radioactive. Now the green salt appeared to be very benign – you couldn’t see that it was radioactive. Every employee who worked around the radioactive materials had special gear and certain procedures they needed to follow in order to stay safe. But it was not uncommon for these workers to take off their respirators and not use their special equipment when the supervisor wasn’t around. They couldn’t see the danger. After the plant closed down all employees received annual physicals to make sure they didn’t have cancer, or any other medical condition brought on by working around radioactive material. The outcomes for being foolish were very real – but there were always some people who just didn’t believe it because they couldn’t see it.
For those of us who are completely a mess about COVID-19, the anxiety is starting to take a toll. Dr. Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist, states that anxiety and its close cousin panic, are both born from fear. He is a behavioral neuroscientist and explains that fear is the oldest survival process we have. Over the last million years or so, we evolved a new layer in our brain on top of our primitive survival brain. This is the prefrontal cortex and it helps us think and plan for the future. It predicts what the future has in store for us based on our past experiences. If we don’t have all the necessary information, our prefrontal cortex starts laying out different scenarios of what could happen and guesses which scenario will be most likely.
Here comes anxiety. Anxiety comes up when our prefrontal cortexes don’t have enough information to accurately predict the future. And this is what we have with the coronavirus right now. Without accurate information our brain begins to spin stories based on fear. If this wasn’t enough, anxiety is also contagious. This is known as social contagion. Our own anxiety can be triggered just by talking to someone else who is anxious.
When we can’t control our anxiety, our emotion escalates into panic. When this happens, the rational parts of our brain go offline. To hack our brains and break the anxiety cycle, we need to become aware of two things: that we are getting anxious or panicking and what the result is. This helps us see if our behavior is helping us survive or moving us in the opposite direction. Panic can lead to impulsive behaviors that can be dangerous and, anxiety is mentally and physically weakening; a slow burn that has more long-term health consequences.
This is when we can become aware of how unrewarding anxiety is and we can deliberately bring in a ‘bigger, better offer’. Our brains will choose more rewarding behaviors because they feel better. With practice we can replacing old habitual behaviors – such as worry – with those that are naturally more rewarding. (Judson A. Brewer, March 13, 2020)
Step back from the coronavirus situation to ask a few questions. What can we do to get our prefrontal cortex back online to do what it does best – think? When we look at our situation, we can leverage certainty. For example, if we’ve just washed our hands, and haven’t been out in public, the likelihood that we will get sick is very low. The more we see the benefits of good hygiene and compare those with the negative feeling of uncertainty, the more our brain moves toward the positive actions because it feels better.
Continue to stay alert and be aware of your surroundings and protect yourself from exposure. When we get vaccinated, we remove the uncertainty, and our anxiety levels go way down. And always remember – this too shall pass.
Brewer, J. (March 13, 2020). NY Times: A brain hack to break the coronavirus anxiety cycle. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/well/minds/a-brain-hack-to-break-the-coronavirus-anxiety-cycle.html