Why do we feel Anxious?
These are stressful times; we are living in an uncertain world and don’t know what the future holds. Every conversation begins and probably ends with one topic; the coronavirus. What is even more mind boggling is that it isn’t restricted to our area, state, city or even country. We are facing the same problems and fears that our friends in Canada, Japan and Australia are. We are united by the one common factor, which maybe the first in most of our lives. Worldwide we are in lockdown, movements are restricted and no one knows when this will end. This uncertain future is enough cause for worry.
Most of us are feeling stressed and anxious, but what is causing this anxiety? Let’s understand this from a biological view point. When our body senses danger it automatically sends a signal to the brain. The brain, in turn, goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode and the sympathetic nervous system get activated. When this happens, our body starts gearing up for action, heart beat increases, pupils dilate, mouth dries up etc. We are ready to either take on or flee the predator. This is why we get anxious and energised. What I have described is the body’s response to an acute short-term threat (such as being faced with a mugging). We have evolved to deal with such threats. In the long term, we activate our survival mode where we are in a relaxed state, with slow heart beats, salivating mouth, uninhibited digestive system etc.
What has happened with the onslaught of COVID – 19 is that our body detects a threat and activates it’s ‘fight or flight’ response, but this is not a short term threat, this is a chronic threat, it’s there all the time and it has many negative consequences. Not only on our bodies, but also on our life style and our economic conditions. Therefore, we cannot take flight and only fight. But till when? There is no designated end date or event in sight. Our systems are not equipped to handle this long-term fight and it breaks down. The worry turns in to stress which becomes a vicious cycle. We lose sleep, and this is a known factor for increasing stress levels. The correlation of less sleep and high stress keeps the brain constantly activated. Less sleep also affects the body, lowering its immunity and hence becoming more susceptible to the enemy we are fighting: the virus.
Poor immunity, lack of sleep, worry over an uncertain future not only take a toll on our physical but also mental health. We lose emotional control; our body says ‘fight,’ but with whom? We turn to the people around us. Arguments in families will escalate, patience with others reduce and the overall environment at home becomes more volatile. To add to the anxiety is our isolation. Humans are social beings; we need to interact with others. It is an important part of our survival and currently we are being asked to cut that, too. Isolation along with the uncertain future is doing us more harm and increasing our stress.
While there are multiple ways to tackle this stress, I leave this chapter on an important exercise. Guided muscle relaxation or meditation, this practice has multiple benefits on the body. Both allow the body to rest and help us restore balance. Research has shown that meditation slows down brain activity and reduces stress while triggering hormones that activate and reinstate both the physical and mental state. This exercise alleviates anxiety, depression and other negative mindsets and is easily available in audio, video and text format online. It takes around 15 minutes to achieve this benefit and during these COVID-19 times it is extremely important to take back the power and control of our lives.
Our mind cannot exist in two different states, it can either be anxious or relaxed. We have to consciously work on relaxing and not allow the stress to fester.
It is important we reign in this anxiety and take care of our minds like we do our physical bodies. We have recognised how the anxiety is triggered, we will learn more steps in the next chapter about how to take control and manage ourselves effectively.
How can we take back control?
We have established that anxiety is our body going into ‘fight or flight’ mode, but when we start believing that we have no control over the situation and external sources are responsible for our circumstances, we begin to feel helpless. This helplessness can, in turn, become depression as we tell ourselves, why bother if we cannot control the situation. While some anxiety is good and motivates us to take action, the helpless and subsequent depression restricts us. The elderly and those living alone are more susceptible to this helplessness and the youth have a great opportunity to step up and motivate them. We can control this anxiety with feelings that we are doing something and prevent ourselves from feeling helpless and in turn getting depressed. Here I repeat the importance of guided relaxation and meditation to aid us through.
If you are a parent with children at home it is very important that you remain calm and assertive. An anxious parent makes for anxious children. A scared leader equates a fearful household while an alert parent means a cautious and responsive household. It is natural to feel worried and want to speak with someone, but do so in private and not in the presence of young ones.
Explain and reassure children that they are at the lowest risk and being somewhat young and healthy parents, so are we. The reason for isolation is not because we are at risk but so that we do not catch the virus and contaminate others. Movements aren’t restricted because of fear but to prevent transmission of germs to those who are at higher risk. By staying away, we help fight the virus. This entrusts children to feel more in control and contributing towards a solution rather than being powerless over these circumstances. Children are looking at us for guidance and we want them to feel empowered not incapable.
No social distancing. Though we keep hearing the term “social distancing,” these days, we humans are social beings and have a higher need to connect with others, especially in the current situation to reassure ourselves that we are okay. Therefore, social and emotional distancing should increase and physical distancing should be completely reduced. Get in touch with friends and family, ask how they are, listen to what they have to say. Make the most of the technology available and encourage children to do the same. Use video calling apps to not only hear but also see how others are doing; help children connect on social media with family members or others who may be old or live alone on a daily basis. This will give them a purpose and sense of being a part of the solution, it will also go a long way in building empathy. Lead by example.
Give your life a structure. As we are stuck at home for an indefinite period, give this period some structure. It is not a holiday, the more we follow a set schedule the easier it will be to cope. Wake up and sleep at roughly the same time, have meals as scheduled, assign fixed hours for work, study, play and most importantly exercise and practice relaxation. This isolation is the perfect opportunity to explore that ‘quality time’ we were too busy for earlier. Play games, cook, exercise together. Parents can help children with their online schooling, understand better how the children are studying and learn new concepts from them. Adjust the time table from before but keep the fixed hours.
Learn new things. Take up online courses to study something you always wanted to or anything new that interests you. Take this opportunity to learn that musical instrument you were keen on or maybe explore more origami options, anything is possible with the internet.
Limit news intake. While the news can give us the information required, keeping it on all the time increases our anxiety. Chances are, there won’t be much change in the news from morning to evening. Therefore, restrict the number of times and the amount you watch or hear to maybe twice a day for half an hour each on scheduled time. Follow it up with something light and relaxing, preferably a comedy. Avoid reading and forwarding messages regarding the virus at all costs unless from a verified source.
To end the coping techniques, I stress again on guided relaxation or meditation every single day. The importance and benefits of relaxation are immense. It reduces negative emotions, energizes and regulates the mind and body, improves brain function, corrects disturbed sleep patterns and reduces anxiety.
Guided meditation for relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation and guided relaxation techniques are all easily available on the internet. Search, download and begin today. Engage the entire household in this. It is imperative that we learn to relax the mind and body so that we don’t suffer from the negative effects of this isolation and unknown future.
I’ll sum up with a quote by noted physicist Marie Curie, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”