Read time 5-8 minutes
During this extraordinary situation we find ourselves in with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a lot of people having reactions they don’t really understand. So today I thought I’d write something with my therapist hat on. Ladies and Gents, this is Pandemic Anxiety 101.
IN CRISES, WE START DOING WEIRD STUFF: Have you found yourself struggling to sleep, staying up late into the night, reading endless news articles, buying lots of things that you don’t even like very much, getting angry with your mum / partner / child for not staying home, drinking more, been a bit teary, and really want to eat ... cake, chocolates, biscuits and more cake. You are not alone!
If you’re feeling wobbly, you may have noticed all sorts of weird stuff going on. Are you arguing more, talking faster, struggling to sleep, feeling restless, desperate for information? Perhaps you are feeling teary and overwhelmed, and a bit sick? Struggling to make decisions, or think with a clear head? Just want to stay in bed? Tummy upsets? Having palpitations, butterflies, headaches? Ranting, picking fights or getting into arguments? Laughing unexpectedly or saying random, inappropriate things? Developing Very Strong Opinions on epidemiology overnight? Or have you just completely gone to ground?
If you are feeling any of these things: The good news is you are not going mad! And you are 100% not alone. In fact, its completely normal - a fully emotionally functional human being. I’ll explain: take a seat and put the kettle on.
WE ARE LIVING IN TURBO-ANXIOUS TIMES. Well, no kidding. We’re in the middle of an unprecedented crisis that has showed up unexpectedly (they have a tendency do that!) and which presents a mortal threat to ourselves, our loved ones and our way of life. It’s terrifying and it's getting worse, all of which makes us feel totally out of control. And this is in addition to everything else we have going on.
HERE’S THE SCIENCE BIT. When we are feeling threatened, our brain springs into action. Specifically, a tiny, innocent-looking thing buried behind your ear called the amygdala (fun fact: it's the size and shape of an almond. In Latin Amygdala = almond). It’s the alarm system of our brain and the bit in charge when we are frightened - and right now, it’s in full klaxon mode! Unfortunately, it’s also very primitive bit of our brain. It was very useful when threats basically consisted of being eaten by large scary animals like sabre tooth tigers. Well, to the amygdala, everything looks like a sabre tooth tiger is about to attack you. It’s also pretty basic, so it really only has two settings. They are no tigers and TIGER!!!.
THE ALARM IS SET - TIGER!!!. All threats look like a tiger to the amygdala, it preps you accordingly. There are really only two reactions to a tiger about to eat you: fight it, or run away really fast. So, this is what the brain automatically tells the body to get ready to do – it does not have time to think, it just reacts because it needs to react very fast to escape or protect. It’s called the Fight or Flight response (there’s also freeze, meaning you just get paralysed). It does this by flooding your body with chemicals like cortisol, and adrenaline. Your heart rate goes up in order to pump more blood and oxygen round the body and muscles tighten to get ready for action. Your lungs take in air faster to supply your body with oxygen. Your senses are on super alert - the pupils in your eyes get larger to see better. And your digestive system slows down for the moment, so the brain can concentrate on more important things. These chemicals are also largely responsible for the huge range of other cognitive / physical / emotional reactions - see the intro.
In group fear situation like a pandemic, this tends to happen whether you think you're scared or not - anxiety is even more catchy than COVID. Your brain and body reacts even if your conscious mind doesn't.
TIGER V VIRUS: Obviously this is all great if you really are running away from a sabre tooth tiger, but we’re now in a situation where we’re being asked to do the EXACT OPPOSITE of running away. We are being told to sit tight. Literally stay put. We need to process large amounts of information, make complicated and life changing decisions, and stay calm. All while a bit of your brain is running around yelling TIGER!!! TIGER!!! TIGER!!! This isn’t easy. The result is an awful lot of stress and anxiety. You end up feeling really overwhelmed and having all sorts of reactions.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS: Anxiety isn’t just an emotional reaction – it’s also physical, cognitive and behavioural.
Physiological: You will notice all kinds of things such as rapid heartbeat, stomach upsets, constipation or diarrhoea or both, headaches, dry mouth
Behavioural: You may find yourself eating more frequently and often it’s the unhealthy stuff. Changes in the way you talk…fast and louder. Hoarding is common as it provides instant relief from anxiety and a sense of control and safety. The more hoarders accumulate, the more insulated they feel from the world and its dangers.
Cognitive: it’s very difficult to think straight when you’ve got the TIGER!!! TIGER!!! TIGER!!! alarm ringing loudly in your mind – so we have feelings of dread and fear of dying. We also become very bad at making decisions, absorbing information or thinking rationally. Which is EXACTLY what we need to do.
WHAT TO DO: The good news is it is possible to dampen and turn off the alarm system and calm down. We can turn the amygdala from TIGER!!! to NO TIGER , and not just by distracting it with cake and chocolates. Here are some solid, scientifically proven things you can do.
1. BREATHE: Breathing exercises are basically magic. You can do them anywhere and they work in minutes. They work because of all the physical reactions the amygdala triggers, rapid breathing is one over which we have conscious control. By control your breathing, you are basically telling your body that it’s OK - there is no sabre tooth tiger! Your body will then start to dial down the adrenaline and cortisol and all the other reactions will slow or halt.
How to control your breathing? It’s easy. The golden rules are these:
· Breath in through the nose, out through the mouth. SLOWLY. If it helps breath in for a count of 7 and out for a count of 11. The idea is to make the outbreath longer than the inbreath – try and imagine there’s a candle in front of you and it mustn’t go out.
· Breathe through to your tummy not just the chest – really make your tummy go out when breathing in.
· Do it for two minutes - time yourself - and see how you feel. Seriously, try it – this technique is used by everyone from top athletes to the US military to help stay in control while under stress. There are all sorts of versions – from Pranayam or yogic breathing to moon breathing to 4-7-8. Google them to figure out what works for you.
2. CALL A FRIEND: Don’t suffer alone. Call someone you trust and who’ll listen while you have a bit of a rant, or a cry, or a general wobble. Someone who’s not judgemental and can simply be empathic to how you are feeling. If in case you on the receiving end of one of those calls, just be kind to them. You can’t fix what’s going on so just give them a bit of space to rant and remind them that its just normal to feel overwhelmed when faced with anxiety provoking situations. If you can, call your friends and check in on them. Especially if they’ve gone silent.
3. LAUGH: Find something that safe and makes you laugh – laughter is a huge releaser of endorphins. Silly memes, silly jokes, play and have fun with your kids. Chat to others over the phone, have a virtual party over video call, it will help you feel less alone.
4. USE YOUR HANDS: Yes, you can meditate. If this helps, it’s amazing. But if it’s not for you then trying to start this when you’re already anxious can be really hard. Instead, do something with your hands, that requires you to focus. Cook. Bake. Tidy. Knit. Draw. Paint. Garden. Mend things. Focus on something you find relaxing - this is what counsellors like me call Mindfulness.
5. TREAT YOUR BODY: Our minds and bodies are connected. So, the stress we hold affects both. Take a relaxing bath or a warm shower. Use nice scents on your body or use a diffuser perhaps. Stretch. Skip. Do yoga. Dance. Nourish your body with nutritious and delicious foods and drinks. All of these will help calm you down.
6. SPRING SUNSHINE: Amid this horror its easy to forget the beauty of spring and sunshine – enjoy it. If you can’t go outside, open the windows and feel it on your face and breath it in. If it’s safe for you to go outside (maybe you live in the country) do it, while of course observing social distance. Go for a walk. Being outdoors, connecting to nature, is hugely calming.
7. STEP AWAY: Being on social media and getting constant updates maybe tempting but all it will do is scare you more and add to the anxiety. Turn off the telly and for goodness sake avoid the psychopathic digital wild west. Stick to sensible sources like the BBC, WHO website and the NHS, and limit yourself to short need-to-know bits a day. You’ll feel better immediately. Talk to sensible friends instead – keep a physical distance, not a social distance.
8. FIND HEALTHY COPING MECHANISMS: Unhealthy coping mechanisms will all translate as TIGER!! to your poor brain. Getting drunk or taking recreational drugs may provide a quick relief but don’t do it, especially if you’re alone (TIGER!!!). Stay up all night binge watching (TIGER!!!). Get sucked into conspiracy theories (TIGER!!!). See? Stress levels going up already. Breathe.
9. BE KIND: to yourself and others. Now is not the time to start a diet. Nor is it time to makeover your life. You'll probably struggle to keep to it, fail and add to your misery. Don’t make this more stressful than it already is. Think comfort - books, comfort telly, comfy everything. Understand that if someone is angry or aggressive, then they are just scared.
So, there we go. Hopefully a bit less TIGER!!. That kettle should have boiled by now. Go make a nice cup of tea, sit by a window and drink it in this lovely sunshine and listen to bird song. We are British after all. And save me some of that cake!
STEP AWAY FROM TERRIBLE COPING MECHANISMS
Copyright © 2020 Kalpna Hirani