The neuroscience of anxiety & 5 tips on how to cope during times of crisis.
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Today’s global COVID-19 crisis has our entire world in disarray and our conscious and subconscious anxiety levels are at an all-time high. We are facing global challenges that we have never even imagined. We are united by the concern for our health, the health of our loved ones, our careers, and our finances. How do we cope? I find it helpful to review how our brain operates during times of stress so we can apply tools to get us out of the fear and into the action. Here is a short walkthrough of the "neuroscience of the brain" (David Rock) and some of my practical tips.
photo credit Gerd Altmann
How our brains operate during times of stress.
Our brain is constantly scanning threats for survival. When a perceived harmful event or attack (either physical or social) is triggered, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, adrenaline and cortisol are released and we can confront a threat within a millisecond. This innate threat response is very helpful when having to fight a lion/tiger/bear, but unfortunately not helpful for our daily life!
What essentially happens in this situation is that the brain short-circuits only has enough energy to utilise the “habitual” part of the brain, and therefore shuts down the prefrontal cortex where higher-level thinking and decision making occurs. Back to today’s COVID-19 crisis, the brain’s threat level can be at its highest if we do not consciously try to manage our emotions.
When the brain goes into panic mode, the emotional response takes over the rest of the brain and actual conscious higher-level thinking and decision making is impossible. Overuse of this automatic emotional response takes a big toll on the body and our immune system as you can imagine.
According to the research by Dr. David Rock, this emotional response is triggered by threats to our certainty among our status, autonomy, relativeness, and fairness. The good news is that we can consciously rewire our association with the perceived threat and this is what we will cover below.
The following are 5 practical tips that can help you create more certainty in your life during this challenging time:
(TIP 1) Practice labelling your emotions.
The key is to be aware of your emotions but to not let them take over. Science has proven that labelling one’s emotions dampens the “fight or flight” response and enables your prefrontal cortex to think more clearly. Even strong positive emotions can disturb our cortex from thinking clearly.
Practical tip: Before you start a work project or when you feel stressed, take a few mindful quiet minutes to scan your body and reflect. Take a deep breath and try to specifically label the emotions that you feel and then say the word(s) out loud or write them down. Avoid a big long explanation and try to be brief and specific to label your emotion as this will in turn dampen the threat response in your brain.
(TIP 2) Focus on what you can control rather than what you cannot.
For example, if you are working from home:
Set up your stage. Set up a clean workspace. Remove clutter and have a dedicated workspace or at least a dedicated pen or notepad that is associated with only your work.
Prioritize your week and days ahead of time. Rather than write a long to-do list, write down your top 2 themes that you need to accomplish within your week and then chunk down these themes into categories and actionable "to do's".
Schedule individual focus time, in actionable 25-90-minute segments, directly on your calendars. If you are not familiar with the Pomodoro method, look it up!
(TIP 3) Stay social
According to Neuroscience, social interaction is essential to a healthy mind and it reduces emotional pain and threat.
Schedule regular video meetings with family, friends, colleagues.
Focus on shared goals with colleagues and family.
Reframe the idea of virtual work and make it a positive one.
(TIP 4) Nourish yourself
Make food choices that give lasting energy (whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, etc)
Try to avoid too many stimulants as it can cause anxiety (alcohol, too much caffeine)
Move! Do some yoga or exercise in your home. Many instructors have been offering online courses since we have been in confinement. What a generous blessing.
Stay hydrated (warm water in the morning does wonder for your digestive track).
(TIP 5) Be mindful in body, mind, and spirit
Be mindful of what your body consumes (see tip 4)
Be mindful of what your brain consumes. Reduce your media consumption (confinement does provide some control over this, see tip 2). Our brain wants certainty (so, of course, we want to read the news and be current) but limit your exposure to only 1-2 times a day.
Be mindful of your spirit consumes. Meditation is a powerful and, these conditions, accessible way to connect with oneself and reflect on inner states. Journaling your experience and expressing gratitude are proven to reinforce a positive mindset over time.
What are some positive coping techniques have you learned during this time of confinement? I would love to hear from you. Also, if you have questions about the above techniques, feel free to reach out to me.
Take care of yourself and your loved ones and be safe. Sending you blessings of good health in mind, body, and spirit.