We are living in a time of unprecedented stress. Taking care of our mental health must be a top priority during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
It’s hard to catch a break from the news today. Every few hours, there are announcements that drastically change the landscape of our lives. Schools are closed. Grocery store shelves are empty. Many of us are working from home. And most are doing their best to fulfill their social responsibility to flatten the curve and socially distance.
So if anxiety is on the rise for all of us, how do we deal with this terrifying emotion?
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Don’t worry, neuroscientists have a few ideas.
Some of the most cutting edge research in the field of psychology is happening around the concept of attachment. While research of the past almost exclusively relied on self-report and observational data, we are now actually able to see how the brain is functioning in real time through the use of functional MRI or fMRI.
When we are stressed and are feeling vulnerable, it is very likely that the amygdala, the fear center of our brain will become activated. In an extremely dangerous situation, our amygdala triggers a survival response of fight, flight or freeze.
Once triggered to believe that there may be potential danger in our environment, our greater limbic system (the emotional part of our brain) can become activated and dysregulated. Once this dysregulation occurs, it results in a cascade of events that primes our body for a stress response and thoroughly decreases activity in our frontal lobes.
And this is a big problem.
I often joke with my clients and say, “If I were to design the brain, I certainly would not choose to decrease activity in the most sophisticated part. Especially in a time when we need it the most.” But who am I to judge the evolution of our development? Maybe there is an adaptive reason for the way the brain works?
Neuroscientists say there is.
When in distress, it makes adaptive sense for our limbic system to become activated. Fear, while uncomfortable, is a high adaptive emotion that warns us of danger and primes us to avoid these situations. As the danger becomes greater, our brains know that we are not better off alone, but have a greater likelihood of survival if we have the cooperation of others around us. Avoiding these warnings is not something that our bodies will allow us to do easily. Trying to problem solve alone is also something that our brains know is not best. And this is why we all have a very hard time turning off our anxiety until we feel that others understand the danger and can empathize with what we are going through.
Empathy and understanding from those in our social support is paramount to reducing anxiety. Like it or not, it’s the way our brains have evolved over time. And this is not gender specific. Though some men may not be aware or like to admit this, they too can become dysregulated when they are not receiving social support. Men and women alike are best able to reduce their anxiety through empathy and connection.
Do’s and Don’ts of Anxiety Management
Here are the do’s and don’ts of anxiety management from the smartest researchers in the field:
Don’t: Do not try to curb your anxiety alone. Distraction and avoidance may work for a while, but I guarantee you that stress is still evident in your body. Your heart rate and stress hormones don’t lie.
Don’t: Do not try to challenge your anxious thoughts in the midst of a Pandemic. If your anxiety is valid, challenging these rational thoughts will likely only make your anxiety worse. Now is the time to listen to your anxiety and make appropriate plans for how to stay safe.
Do: Talk about your anxiety with a person who you feel is safe and cares about what you are going through. Receiving empathy and understanding from others is the best way to emotionally regulate in a time of distress. Women and men have this same need. While the way our culture expresses distress may be gender specific, the need for connection is universal.
Do: Listen to others when they are feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Avoid trying to fix the problem as this will only activate their amygdala and limbic system even more. Instead, focus on saying phrases like:
- I get it.
- Yep, this is really hard!
- I’m nervous too.
- You are doing an amazing job in a very difficult situation.
- You got this!
Remember, seeking emotional connection and understanding from others does not change our current situation, but it does change the way we feel about it.
Going through the COVID-19 Pandemic is scary. But, knowing that we are doing it together helps us feel grounded in who we are. Let’s pull from our inner strength, and remember to call on the love and support of others.
I believe we can fare this storm, as long as we do it together.
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Dr. Melissa Estavillo is a Licensed Psychologist and founder of Biltmore Psychology and Counseling. With over 7 years of experience, she specializes in both individual and couples therapy in Phoenix and Scottsdale, AZ. She integrates complementary methodologies and techniques stemming from Emotionally Focused Theory, Psychodynamic Theory and Other Evidence Based Practices to offer a highly personalized approach tailored to each client.