The Covid-19 pandemic is reaching new records for positive cases each day. Schools across the nation are feeling the stress and pressure whether in person, remote, or hybrid. The holidays add extra tension, especially for those with differing opinions within their family, or who cannot see their family. All this stress and anxiety forces us into the lower parts of our brains in an attempt to survive. “Anxiety shows up in the brain as a lot of high beta over the amygdala region in the brain, an area that we use to respond to and process emotional perceptions. If there is too much activity here, we can overreact, over-generalize, and even catastrophize situations, which often leads to miscalculations and more fear” (Caroline Leaf P. , 2020). Most of us have probably been hanging out in our downstairs brain for the past 8 months, reacting on survival mode. So how do we keep ourselves from over-generalizing and catastrophizing? Especially amid a global pandemic?
The trick is to work with our brain, not against it. While neuroscience can explain to us exactly how our anxiety operates, it can also be a blueprint for how to work with our anxiety. So while anxiety and worry may have you experiencing brain fog, irritability, exhaustion, pessimism or apathy, you can also flip the script and use your worry as an instrument to feel empowered, strong, focused, and energized.
This does take consistent effort and time, but so does anxious thoughts. In fact, extensive research shows repressing or shoving away negative thoughts has a direct relation to faster biological aging. Even if we experience anxious thoughts (as we all do occasionally), acknowledging and processing them allows us to understand and deal with those issues more effectively. This is key when dealing with any type of fear, but the current pandemic has really shown a light on how critical it is to engage in this process. We must thoroughly learn about what we fear so that we can take action and fear less (Caroline Leaf P. , 2020). Here are some steps in how to make your brain work with you, not against you.
1. Recognize and honor your emotions as tools.
As I am sure you teach your clients, all emotions are valid and real. In fact, our emotions are powerful tools. Our anger helps identify injustices, our sadness helps us understand what is most important, and worry and anxiety is a sign that something is wrong. Our emotions are powerful instruments ingrained in each of us, and we can choose how to use them. Rather than labeling feelings as good or bad, shift your perspective to view all emotions as teammates helping you to navigate this life. Occasionally a teammate may be overreacting to a stimulus, but often there can be a lesson learned in each reaction. Mindfulness and the practice of noticing emotions with non-judgement and curiosity can help you recognize how much energy to give each emotional reaction.
2. Use the magic ratio to your advantage.
Take notice of your thoughts throughout the day. What is your average ratio of positive to negative thoughts? The Gottman Institute recommends five positive interactions with your significant other for every negative interaction (The Gottman Institute, 2020). This ‘Magic Ratio’ has been shown to be effective in cultivating healthy personal relationships within the home, schools, and even in board rooms. Why should it not also be implemented with the most important relationship you have - yourself? For every worry or anxious thought, try to counter it with five positive thoughts. The positive thoughts should be something specific, like something you are grateful for or what makes you feel joy. Using this ratio allows for both positive and negative thoughts to co-exist. We are not trying to cover up or ignore our anxieties, but rather to be more realistic with them and find the balance of good and bad in our life. If we work towards the 5:1 ratio, this ensures the negative thoughts do not become the predominant structure in your brain (Caroline Leaf P. B., 2020).
3. Stop and think. Be mindful of your emotions.
Work to become more attuned to your emotions before they become overwhelming. Often an event may occur (for example a triggering social media post) and we don’t realize we have spiraled into an anxiety filled whirlpool until hours later. “When you react to something in your environment, research shows there’s a 90 second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response means you are choosing to stay in that particular emotional loop” (Caroline Leaf P. , 2020). It is easy to push aside small emotional reactions but doing so doesn’t allow you to process them. Pause and recognize each reaction you are experiencing, especially discomfort. Your emotions are trying to tell you something. They act as a warning or alert to something that needs your attention. How will you react to the message? With power, or defeat? A professor once told me, if your emotions become so loud and overwhelming, just yell at them to stop. Literally!
4. Respond to your emotions.
When you experience a strong negative emotion, the instinct is to react. A stimulus (say, an attention-grabbing scare tactic post on social media) jolts you into your amygdala and you are suddenly terrified. Begin the practice of pausing between that stimulus and reaction. Remember the 90 second chemical process? Once you notice a strong emotional reaction, try to take a deep breath. Give yourself the space to look at your anxiety as a part of you, not your entirety. What is this part of you trying to say? Your anxiety could be telling you to up your Covid-19 precautions. It could be a message that you need to practice more calming techniques. Maybe you simply need to set a time limit to be on your phone. Again, view your emotion as a teammate, and respond with kindness. Don’t impulsively react.
5. Increase the dose of positive relationships in your life.
Just like we use neuroscience to understand and take advantage of our emotions, we should also use neuroscience to direct us on how to be resilient. Our brains are wired for social interactions. We are not meant to be secluded for the length we have been.
Thankfully, we have amazing technology to keep us close to our loved ones, even if we cannot be physically close. Having consistent positive interactions (Magic Ratio!) with trusting relationships helps build and maintain resiliency. Can you have a weekly zoom with a friend? Nightly dinner with the people you share a home with? Having someone to turn to is even more important in times of acute stress. If you are struggling to manage your anxiety or mental health on your own, call a trusted helping friend, or a mental health professional.
There are a multitude of techniques and theories to manage anxiety. What it all comes down to is learning the mechanism and purpose of these strong emotions, and then turning it into your superpower. Leaf and her team found in a clinical trial that, “…it's possible to feel empowered over your mind, which can increase the feeling of control over anxiety by up to 81%.” (Caroline Leaf P. B., 2020). Try using the above tips to help you (or even your clients) create a different relationship with your anxiety. Use your anxiety as a partner helping you to stay grounded, logical, and safe.
Caroline Leaf, P. (2020, March 13). How to Manage Fear, Anxiety and Panic During a Pandemic (Or Any Acute Event), Specifically Related to the Current Coronavirus (COVID-19). Retrieved from Dr. Leaf: https://drleaf.com/blogs/news/how-to-manage-fear-anxiety-and-panic-during-a-pandemic-or-any-acute-event-specifically-related-to-the-current-coronavirus-covid-19?_pos=8&_sid=4f6805778&_ss=r
Caroline Leaf, P. B. (2020, October 30). 7 Practical Ways To Manage Overwhelming Worry, From A Neuroscientist. Retrieved from Mind Body Green: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/practical-tips-to-manage-worry
The Gottman Institute. (2020). Retrieved from The Gottman Institute - a research-based approach to relationships: https://www.gottman.com/