The Stress Response & Dealing With Anxiety (information overload and fear of COVID-19)
We’ve entered an unprecedented time that many of us in our lifetimes have never witnessed. Only those old enough to have experienced World War II will have any experience of a country and world under siege and in deep existential crisis.
Without doubt, the mass hysteria and mix of real and fake news will send many of us reeling, unsure of what to believe, what to think, and how to act. Many people will have their stress dial stuck on 10, with thoughts and actions driven by a basic need for survival. When this happens the higher thinking centres of the brain go offline as fight or flight kicks-in. This is why we witness people behaving in way that can seem deeply out of character. Panic buying, arguments, aggression are all driven by a body and brain that is firmly in survival mode.
The stress response results in a flood of chemicals and hormones being released throughout the body. In the short term we can feel alive. We are primed for action as our bodies and brains prepare us to fight off a predator or take action to ensure survival. However, if the perceived stressor remains, we habituate or acclimate to this stress feeling; essentially that means your body might still be stressed and you might not be consciously aware of it.
Back in the early 1980s, psychologists uncovered that stress and infection were linked in animals. This discovery was quickly followed by research revealing that student’s immunity decreased under exams stress. Those sitting tests had fewer natural killer cells that fight infections and tumours. Their bodies all but stopped producing the immunity boosting, infection fighting gamma-interferon and t-cells. This research opened the floodgates to further studies. The overall conclusion? Stress ranging from just a few days to months and years, a common experience in modern life, can wreak havoc in body and brain, disrupting all of the body’s primary functions and depleting immunity significantly. The painful irony in this current situation is that on-going stress about an infection leaves us more susceptible to contracting the virus and amplifies the impact when symptoms take hold.
But how we do stay calm and grounded in the face of such a pandemic. It feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket, is it even possible not to get caught up in the frenzied panic? Here are some steps we can take to manage ourselves, regulate our bodies and help to switch off the stress response.
Emotion is contagious, and fear can spread like wildfire. The body and brain respond to where attention is placed. The more we focus on uncertainty, loss, and threat the more fear and stress we experience.
The first step is to be mindful of where you place your attention. Being informed is important but scouring the internet for every article and story while TV news is running in the background will facilitate fear and perpetuate stress state. Stay informed but avoid prolonged or perpetual exposure to news and other stories. Notice how your body feels, discomfort is a messenger inviting you to pay attention to what you are doing. If you were to stop for a moment you would most likely notice how tension in your body is increasing and your mood is getting lower and lower.
You need to feel your emotions, they are useful feedback. Uncomfortable emotions such as fear and anger present themselves as sensations in the body. They tend to be short lived, lasting usually only a couple of minutes, and flow in a wave like fashion. However, these emotions will kick your thinking brain into action, and it can be very easy to get caught up in a mire of mental churning. This thinking will, in most instances lead to more uncomfortable emotions and leave you feeling worse. On top of that, it will keep your stress response stuck in high gear. Stay with the feelings
If you read an article or watch a story or piece of news and you notice fear rising in your body, simply allow it. Stay with the sensations without getting stuck in the stories that your thinking brain will want to pull you into. Your body wants to come back into its natural state of balance, getting stuck in your head and over-thinking will keep you out of balance. The next step in calming the nervous system and facilitating balance in rhythmic breathing. This doesn’t mean taking deep breaths, it means directing your attention into your body, feeling the breath in and out and maintaining a natural rhythmic cycle of breathing. Bringing your attention into your body, allowing your feelings to flow, and rhythmic breathing will begin to bring you back into harmonious balance.
The next step is connection. Human beings are wired for social interaction, as we connect with each other we trigger a calming response in body and brain. Isolation is a stressor, and loneliness weakens immunity. In the current climate where many are forced to isolate, it can be important to increase interactions through other mediums such as phone and online channels. Texts, calls, FaceTime and Skype are all mediums through which we can stay connected. If you know someone who lives alone or is in isolation, give them a call, it will serve you both.
The final step when faced with uncertainty is perception of control. The more your focus on those things that lie completely outside of your control, the more stress will register in your body. Bring your attention onto those things and people that you can directly influence. Be more present in each moment with the people you are with and the activities you are involved in. We live in a fast-paced world where we are encouraged to continually stay in our minds and jump into the future, thinking and planning. While these things are important, now is a time to practice being a little more present in each moment, engaging fully in what we are doing.
Collectively we will come through this crisis. Human beings are incredibly resourceful and resilient. This is an opportunity for us to pull together and maybe even grow and develop as we move forward. Good luck and be safe.