We are undoubtedly in strange and unprecedented times and whilst that word is bandied about a lot at the moment it is truly a period of uncertainty. We have no point of reference with a viral crisis on this scale. We have no idea if and when we might catch it, its severity or how long this is going to last. With this level of uncertainty comes fear as we humans are hard wired to find the unknown uncomfortable. When we talk of crisis response we are really talking about fear response, something that remains relatively unchanged in our evolution.
In simple terms our fear response originates from the ancient part of our brain processing. Key parts of your body involved in these processes are the limbic system and sympathetic nervous system The ancient reptilian part of the brain (amygdala) is responsible for triggering the fear response. This response was necessary in times when we needed to run like hell from a predator. It’s still useful today for when we need to respond very quickly to potential threats.
The amygdala will work with lightning speed without any conscious input on your part to engage the sympathetic nervous system.
This process begins with messages sent to the hypothalamus, raising the alarm. The hypothalamus activates the pituitary gland which actives the adrenal gland which secretes the hormones adrenalin, cortisol and noradrenalin. These hormones trigger the flight or fight response.
It is perfectly normal for a healthy stress response to make you:
- Feel flushed
- Increase your heart rate and breathing speed.
- Increase blood flow to your muscles
- Divert blood flow from your digestive tract
- Increase your blood sugar and blood pressure for increased energy.
- See in tunnel vision enabling focus on the threat at hand.
We know that a physical threat or challenge would cause the amygdala to set off the sympathetic nervous system with symptoms that would come in handy such as sharpened focus and an energy surge. We also know that a perceived or possible threat such as a viral infection will similarly set off this primitive siren call.
In the case of Covid-19 the threat is not imagined but real. We see the news reporting that infection and death numbers are rising. We are confined, isolated and distanced from others. Told of the risks yet with no real certainty of outcomes should we contract the virus.
This naturally sets off our stress response. Remember it’s a natural and normal response to threat designed to keep us alive.
The problem is that the symptoms of our innate stress response are not particularly useful when we are social distancing and isolated at home. It can also result in some strange and uncomfortable symptoms and behaviours.
- Panic buying loo rolls. Yes that urge to create a feeling of safety and security comes from a cocktail of stress hormones putting us to action. Which can actually be useful given that the stress response can also upset your tummy. Yes sh***ing yourself in fear actually helps you run faster.
- Sleep problems. The amygdala can stay on alert preventing you from fully enjoying a rest and digest state. This is a pain when it comes to falling asleep or enjoying restful sleep.
- Physical aches and pains in your body.
- Brain fog and muddled thinking.
- An increase in thoughts.
- Increased/decreased appetite.
- Skin outbreaks.
If you finding it hard to switch off the guard dog of the brain or are experiencing unpleasant symptoms of stress and worry we have some suggestions for lessening those unpleasant symptoms of anxiety.
Addressing your Mindset
Think about your mindset. If you are experiencing largely negative thoughts and feelings it may be time to pay attention. Remain aware of what you are telling yourself and acknowledge any faulty thinking. We may not be able to control the crisis as we would like but we can control how we think about it.
- Thinking in terms of black or white/all or nothing?
- Over generalising about things?
- Catastrophising (a trap we can fall into when ingesting large amounts of negative media)
- Mind reading or fortune telling (sometimes we just don’t have the answers)
- Discounting the positive and seeking out negative information to validate our mindset.
- Blame and anger at the situation we find ourselves in.
The antidote is to be mindful of your thoughts. Document them if you need and set a reminder if awareness is proving difficult. Once you have your pattern of thinking ask yourself these questions:
- Is this thought logical and where is the evidence?
- Are your expectations of others realistic?
- Where is this thought taking me and what alternatives could I consider?
- Are you fortune telling and what are all viewpoints?
- Am I giving away my power and how could I problem solve instead?
If your thoughts do not stand up to scrutiny reframe them to reflect an expansive worldview. Challenge yourself by asking how helpful is this thought? How realistic? What are the alternative solutions or explanations.
Protect and filter
Filter your consumption of social media, television, films or games. Protect your mind from violent or fear based reports. Let some people go from your timeline and release yourself from anything that does not contribute to your mental wellbeing. If you need to check in with the daily news do this once at the same time every day. This is essential self-care during fragile times. Put yourself at the top of the list and orientate your choices around fulfilling the most important task of feeling well.
Get moving any way you can
Remember those stress hormones getting your body ready to take action? Exercise can be a great way of releasing that pent up tension. Moderate movement every day can help counter feelings of fear and worry with feel good endorphins. Take advantage of your daily exercise slot and use all those amazing free resources at the moment. The physical activity should also help you feel more tired and ready for bed.
During this time as stress builds we may breathe as if there is a major threat but have no way of diffusing the physiological effect it creates. We can find ourselves short of breath as the body tries to get as much oxygen in the system to tackle the threat at hand. Our chest can feel tight and much of our breathing operates from the upper chest in shallow movements.
The 4-7-8 breath is an ancient breathing technique that restores and recalibrates the central nervous system. A short inhale followed by a twice as long exhale has a positive and immediate effect on the parasympathetic nervous system. This breath improves your stress response over time with daily practice.
Inhale through the nose for the count of 4.
Hold your breath for the count of 7
Exhale a noisy open mouth breath for the count of 8
Repeat in a cycle of 3
Do this breathing practise daily. It saturates your bloodstream with oxygen and expels carbon dioxide from your lungs. The act of counting also focuses the mind and relaxes the body.