Your Anxious Mind in the Time of COVID
In the last week, I had three separate conversations with three different patients about how to handle their overly anxious mind during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and the transitioning out of quarantine time. It occurred to me that there are many more people who might benefit from this being a part of this conversation, so here is a brief summary of key takeaways:
- You are not your anxiety. Yes, your brain is prone to (over)react to danger in a way that is extreme and uncomfortable, but YOU are still in control of your thoughts, and subsequently feelings and actions.
- Your anxiety has been passed down to you from generations of your ancestors who survived BECAUSE they were anxious, hyper-vigilant and overly cautious. Humans are literally selected for anxiety by evolution, just like we ourselves selected dogs with traits we like (no, hypoallergenic and weighing three pounds at maturity were not defining feature of wolves in the wild).
- You probably watched adults around you react with fear and anxiety to stimuli that you yourself have not processed as dangerous hundreds of times in your childhood, and you began to process them as dangerous also. I, shamefully, literally taught by daughter to be afraid of snakes by jumping three feet in the area, turning white and fleeing EVERY time I saw a huge (really huge) garter snake who lived in our rose bush. My conscious mind knew it was “harmless”, but my ancestor-given anxiety told me to flee.
- So, if you both inherited your predisposition to anxiety (the “Nature” hypothesis” in point 2 above) AND watched loving adults show you how to be anxious (the “Nurture” hypothesis in point 3 above), then you should feel no stigma, shame or embarrassment about it – it is time to admit it and DO something about it!
- One of the most researched and effective ways to deal with anxiety is to engage in the process of identifying and challenging your anxious thoughts. When professionals help you do this, the modality of therapy is called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), but it can be done without professional intervention, especially in mild cases.
Here is the process you can go through to lower your anxiety, either now during this pandemic, or at any time in the future.
Identify your feelings as anxiety, fear or apprehension. Identify where in your body you feel this. Most common areas of feeling anxiety somatically include temples, stomach, upper back and shoulders, heart and hands (sweaty/clammy or cold/numb).
Recognize that this anxious feeling is not the result of character or personality flaws, but the result of your ancestor/parent given overactive primitive brain. Primitive brain, also known as “lizard brain,” has one job – to keep us safe. It is responsible for all unconscious functions, such as pumping your blood, moving your hand away from a hot stove, and running from danger BEFORE your conscious brain has time to identify and process danger. Your lizard brain is TRYING to keep you safe, but it is overstating the danger, and it is time to involve your highly developed critical brain. Your lizard brain is making you physically and emotional react to the WORST case scenario AS IF it already happened, don’t let it!
Use your critical and reasonable brain to clearly identify the THOUGHT that is leading to the anxious feeling that you have. For example: “If the number of cases of coronavirus keeps increasing, the kids will NEVER go back to school,” or “If my business doesn’t pick up after this economic downturn, I will go bankrupt,”, or “If I touch incoming mail or packages, I will pick up COVID”.
Step 4 (by far the hardest, fair warning!)
CHALLENGE this thought by giving several real examples of how it will not be true or how things will work out fine if a bad scenario happens. You could say to yourself “Kids will go back to school eventually, and for now they will learn virtually, and I will get to enjoy them at home for a little longer”. Some people find it helpful to go through this challenge in writing – whether by writing in a journal or by typing into a secured document. Some like processing out loud with a therapist or friend who has a large capacity for calmness and won’t “add fuel to the fire”. Your hypoallergenic three-pound furry friend would also be great at this!
Ask yourself to identify what makes you GRATEFUL about the situation you are in. Your lizard brain will begin yelling and swearing at you at this point, but don’t let it! Yes, gratitude can be found in everything, and it is impossible for our brains to be grateful and anxious at the same time. Your gratitude has to be genuine and detailed – don’t say you are grateful for your kids; say you are grateful that you get to truly understand Common Core math because you get to teach it to them or that you enjoy watching them increase their resiliency during this challenging time. Or, express gratitude that while your business is hurting, you get to really know which of your employees and clients are loyal and will stand by you. There are no wrong answers here, get creative!
If steps 1-5 fail, give us a call – we will talk you though this. Furry friends provided on demand.
Natasha Kendal, Ph.D., L.M.F.T. ©2021