There are moments in time when you can feel the history books being written. I was 16 years old when 9/11 happened. It was one of those defining moments of which even my pubescent brain knew that it would change things forever. It did. The world was never the same. And I think the covid-19 situation will be the second one of those moments. For the past few weeks, I have been wondering what the post-covid world will look like. But I can’t seem to figure it out. Will this solve our climate change issues? Will it bring us together as people? Will it sink our economy? Is this the mass extinction event that some have been fearing for years? The honest answer is, I don’t know. I do know that in a three-week time span, my life has completely changed. And I’m not sure I know how to deal with it. Being a neuroscientist means I have a lot of theoretical knowledge about how to deal with uncertainty, unpredictability, or crisis. It doesn’t mean I’m able to put it all in practice. I’m struggling just like everyone else. But since I know that helping others is an effective way to reduce anxiety (more on that later), I figured I could at least share what I know.
The science of stress
The covid-19 situation and the global lockdowns have forced millions of people to start working from home. This has, understandably, led to stress. A LOT of stress. But in contrast to the type of situations that I usually write and speak about (work-related stress like deadlines, excessive workloads, etc.), this situation actually, really, unequivocally deserves to be labeled as stressful. While ‘normal’ work-related stress varies between people (what some find stressful is not an issue at all for others), this stress shouldn’t. If you’re not the least bit stressed out by covid-19, then I’m afraid there is something seriously wrong with you. It is completely normal to be freaked out right now. The only thing we can do is try to manage our freaked-outedness as best we can. To help you with that, let’s start by looking at what is happening inside our brains right now.
We have two different types of stress response systems. The first one is fast and furious. It leads to an injection of adrenaline that activates your sympathetic nervous system. Here’s how that works. Your eyes and ears receive all sorts of information. Right now, they are receiving mostly negative, disturbing information about collapsing health care systems and increasing death tolls. A brain area called the amygdala is responsible for interpreting this information. It does so incredibly fast. Before you have had time to process what you’re seeing or hearing, your amygdala has already decided whether it is a sign of threat or danger. Obviously, in this case, your amygdala will most likely perceive the information you’re getting as threatening. This interpretation leads it to signal the hypothalamus: our brain’s mission control. The hypothalamus is responsible for activating our nervous system, which consists of several parts.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our fight-or-flight response. Activating this system is like hitting the gas pedal in a car. It does all the things needed to get your body ready to do something in the face of danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is its opposite. It activates when the threat has gone, and is responsible for the rest-and-digest response (i.e. calming you down). It’s the car’s braking system. When confronted with threat or danger, your hypothalamus will activate your sympathetic nervous system, leading to an enormous boost of adrenaline. This is all subconscious, meaning this whole thing happens outside of your control and rational thought process. The second stress response system isn’t fast and furious, but rather slow and simmering. It doesn’t give an injection of chemicals, but is more like a slow hormone drip that starts once the initial adrenaline boost has let up. It consists of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands, and is responsible for the production of cortisol. This system keeps you alert, to make sure that you are ready to act in case the immediate threat returns.
Stress management, COVID-style
Right now, it’s pedal to the metal for our sympathetic nervous system, and our parasympathetic brake is completely outgunned. Obviously, in the long run, this is not a tenable situation. Unfortunately, I cannot help solve this issue. I also cannot prevent you from being stressed about it. But I can give you some tips on how to manage your stress to a degree that will allow you to remain relatively functional during this insane time. The way I see it, there are two forces at play. The first is anxiety, the second is balance. For each one, I have compiled a list of 10 tips to help you manage this situation.
- Accept the situation.
As mentioned, being anxious right now is completely normal. And your anxiety is unlikely to decrease any time soon. The best thing you can do right now, is to consciously accept your anxiety. Tell yourself it is ok to be scared. Give yourself a freak-out deadline. Give yourself a few days to properly flip your wig, and promise yourself you will try to return to some form of normalcy afterward. Most likely your anxiety levels will drop the minute you make that promise. Because if you allow yourself to be anxious, you are subconsciously already working towards acceptance. After all, why would you allow yourself to be anxious if it wasn’t acceptable? Because we know that accepting a situation helps reduce the stress associated with that situation, this is a clever way to trick your brain.
- Focus on your circle of influence.
Most of the things associated with covid-19 are well outside of our control. Most of us are unable to do anything to stop, cure, or prevent the virus. This is incredibly frustrating and a major cause of anxiety. We have to put our faith in people we don’t know, to do something we don’t understand. The best way to manage this anxiety is to focus on things that are inside your circle of influence. What can you control? It might be how you structure your day, what you eat, what you read, or who you meet (virtually, #stayhome). The most important thing here is to shift your focus from the threat of things you cannot control, to the reassurance of things you can.
- Live in the moment… Consciously.
We do not know what the world will look like six months from now. This is scary, but at the same time it may be an opportunity to do something we all know is very good for our mental health: live in the moment. If you can accept the situation as it is, you will be able to take every day as it comes without worrying too much about the future. I’ll be the first to admit this will require an enormous amount of cognitive control, which is the ability and willpower to focus your thoughts and behavior. This is why you will need to be consciously rational. Your amygdala, part of your reptile brain, will want to focus on everything associated with the threats and dangers of covid-19. You have to fight that urge by consistently shifting your focus whenever you feel your reptile brain taking control. This is not something you will be able to do right away, and it is not something you will be able to do all the time. That is not a problem, as long as you are aware of the fight going on inside your brain, and your ability to use cognitive control to pull yourself back to the now whenever you feel you are getting too worked up.
- Go on a news/social media diet.
As Lady Gaga once eloquently put it: “social media is the toilet of the internet.” If you want to feel miserable about yourself, go on Instagram. If you want to feel like the end is near, go on Twitter. If you want to lose faith in humanity, go on Facebook. Of course, a bit of nuance is warranted here, it ain’t all bad, but let’s be honest: a lot of us are using social media as our main source of news. Right now, that is doing more harm than good. Social media channels are overflowing with fake news, fake images, and fake videos. The more shocking the post, the more viral it goes. The amount of misinformation being spread across the globe is staggering and has been called more dangerous than the virus itself. So, go on a news diet. We all need to stay updated on the situation of course, but get your news from credible sources, and do not binge. I repeat: Do. Not. Binge. We’re hoarding information like toilet paper in a fruitless attempt by our brains to feel safe and in control. But no matter how much you read, you will never fully understand what is going on, and binging news will not reassure you things are getting better. Quite the opposite. Check the news in the morning, and maybe at the end of the day, but no more than that. And definitely not right before you go to sleep.
- Look for ways to help others.
This tip is also related to having some degree of control over what is going on. We might feel useless, like we can’t do anything that matters. But we can. And once we start realizing that, we will start feeling better. Altruism activates brain areas that make you feel good, and is strongly associated with wellbeing and happiness. Additionally, acts of kindness towards others give us a sense of agency, the feeling that what we do matters, that we can have an impact on the world. So, do something for someone else. Donate to a food bank if you can, send a postcard to an elderly person, or start an online get-together for people who feel isolated.
- Share your feelings.
You might feel like you’re going crazy, and people would look at you funny if they knew how anxious you were about all that is happening. That is just your brain trying to keep you safe again. In this case, safe from humiliation and social exclusion. As frustrating as it may be, your brain is simply not a very reliable source of information. It jumps to conclusions and tends to favor worst-case scenarios, especially in stressful situations. The truth is that you are most likely not going crazy, and people would be relieved to hear that you are as scared as they are. In times like these it is incredibly important to feel part of a group. Groups are an evolutionary advantage because when it comes to fending off threats there has always been strength in numbers. This is why being part of a group will automatically make us feel safer and less anxious, even if the thing that binds us together is the anxiety itself.
- Structure your day.
When the world is in chaos, it is up to us to find structure. As William McRaven, a U.S. Navy Admiral, once wisely said (in a video that has gone viral for its motivational value): make your bed. If you feel like you are not strong enough to handle this situation, start by doing something small. Make your bed. Once you’ve done that, take a shower. Brush your hair. Put your clothes on (but only the top half of course because hey, we’re working from home and Zoom cannot see your legs). Make a to-do list and check off every task you complete. Structuring your day helps you take control. One of the warning signs of mental health problems is a decline in personal care. This is not to say that anxiety about covid-19 means you have mental health problems (especially since we are all dealing with that anxiety which, in fact, makes it normal). What it does mean, however, is that structuring your day and completing small tasks may give you a sense of control and reward that will help reduce your anxiety.
- Use neutral language to describe the situation.
This may seem like inspirational speaker poppycock, but the things you say to yourself matter. I’m not in favor of telling yourself everything is ok when it isn’t, or that believing in yourself will make all your dreams come true. But in this case, you may benefit from consciously using neutral framing when talking about things related to covid-19. Don’t call it a crisis. If you have paid attention to what I’ve written before, you will see that I have refrained from using the term coronacrisis and have instead opted for covid-19 situation. We shouldn’t be in denial about what is going on, but there is no need to constantly remind ourselves that we are in CRISIS. I have also chosen to use covid-19 instead of COVID-19, even though I know that is officially incorrect. But I don’t think it is useful to keep SHOUTING THE NAME OF A DEADLY VIRUS AT YOU. These are small examples of framing. It makes the whole situation sound slightly less threatening, without downplaying its severity.
I cannot stress this enough (pun intended). Make sure you get enough sleep. I live in the Netherlands, where our former Minister of Medical Care, responsible for handling the covid-19 situation, fainted during a debate. He was suffering from exhaustion and had to resign on doctor’s orders. Our Prime-Minister on the other hand, has mentioned on multiple occasions that he makes sure to get at least 7.5 hours of sleep every night. Our PM got it right. The only way you will be able to leverage enough cognitive control to manage your anxious thoughts and remain standing, is if you get enough sleep. Your brain is working overtime. You need to give it a rest.
As strange as this may sound, play is an incredibly effective stress management technique. Play allows you to escape the real world for a bit, to exchange it for a game world in which anything is possible. A world in which obstacles are not threatening, but challenging. In a game it is OK to die, because you can simply start over. Playing a game stimulates the release of dopamine, responsible for feelings of reward, and serotonin, responsible for feelings of joy. Play can also stimulate social bonding. Especially during these times, when physical contact is impossible, playing online multiplayer games can have an enormous impact. Multiplayer games, especially cooperative ones, stimulate the release of a chemical called oxytocin. It is also called the cuddle hormone, because cuddling increases oxytocin levels in our brains. Now that real cuddling is impossible, playing games with friends allows us to simulate that cuddly feeling in the virtual world.
None of these tips are quick fixes or magic spells. They all require a conscious decision to look at this situation from a different perspective, to consciously choose a different approach. An approach that will not yield results overnight and that will not completely eliminate your anxiety. But if you put in the time and effort, then I have faith that some of these tips will help you hit the brakes on your sympathetic nervous system every once in a while, so you can successfully navigate your way through this situation.
Read Part 2 from Dr. Marcia Goddard – Maintaining a Healthy Work-Life Balance During Challenging Times
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