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The Sky is Falling! Understanding and Managing Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic

 

By Aaron Telnes M.C.

Registered Psychologist

 

Understanding Anxiety

The stress and anxiety that is created by navigating our lives during the COVID-19 Pandemic is palatable between people (at least 2 metres apart!), across the nation, and around the world. The fear of getting sick, being isolated and/or quarantined, and managing concerns about our personal and professional wellbeing is understandably taxing on the body and mind. It is more important than ever, during this time of risk, uncertainty, and change, to keep our eyes open and our wits about us. Which can be challenging if we are gripped with anxiety, fear, and stress.

The Limbic System
Figure 1. The Limbic System is the part of the brain that controls basic emotions and drives.

As I often describe to my clients, the anxiety centre in our brain – the Limbic System – is ancient, evolutionarily speaking. It developed when we were navigating a much different environment then we do now – an environment with a few more predators and a lot less pre-packaged food.

The Limbic System evolved to help us mitigate those threats in some useful ways, such as with Fight or Flight responses. When you came across a predator that could potentially kill you, your anxiety centre gave you a few options – 1) You could Fight it, if you could win, or 2) You could Flee, if you couldn’t win.

With a few additional evolutionary drives like Find Food and Procreate, we were quite successful at navigating our environment. Now, fast forward to the current day and age, and the COVID-19 Pandemic.

 
The Cerebral Cortex

Our evolutionary drives are still rooted in what they were originally intended for. What has changed, however,

Figure 2. The Cerebral Cortex is the wrinkly outer layer of the brain that controls complex brain functions

is our capacity to solve more complex problems through the development of the Cerebral Cortex. This is the “newest” part of our brain that has allowed us to create advanced developments in social relationships, agricultural practices, societies, sanitation, vaccines, and global trade networks, just to name a few.

What does this all mean when it comes to managing anxiety during the COVID-19 Pandemic? Essentially, it means it is incredibly important to have your “new” brain (Cerebral Cortex) and “old” brain (Limbic System) communicate with each other and collaborate when it comes to managing our thoughts, actions, and feelings. The reason for this is that the old Limbic System was not built to navigate the new environment that the Cerebral Cortex helped to create.

The Limbic System has a vital role to play during this time – to keep us alive and alert! Yet, it can do this much more effectively with the help of the Cerebral Cortex.

 

For example, when the Limbic System is screaming to “Buy all the Food Now!” to keep you alive in the present moment, the Cerebral Cortex will be assessing a whole host of additional variables related to that drive to ensure not just immediate, but long-term survival. As a result, it may suggest: “Buy food more consistently during this time, plan meals, determine availability of money over the short and long-term.”

Figure 3. The Limbic System (left) and the Cerebral Cortex (right)

 

Our ability to survive up to this point as a species was due to the cross-communication between our Limbic System and our Cerebral Cortex. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure the cross-communication continues.

 

Managing Anxiety

To support that continued cross-communication, below are some strategies to support you to manage anxiety during this time:

 

Recognize and Challenge Anxious Automatic Thoughts

 

Automatic thoughts are thoughts that come into your awareness quickly and expect immediate action/reaction, with little to no conscious consideration or reflection.

Give your Cerebral Cortex the opportunity to challenge, modify, or stop the thought or action before engaging in it.

  • Automatic Thought Ex: “This pandemic will never end”.
  • Counter Thought Ex: “History has shown that pandemics end.” “We are more equipped, now than ever, to manage this pandemic effectively”.

Work to find evidence to either accept or reject the thought as being reality-based or imaginary. Not all thoughts are rational or reflect the reality of the situation.

    • Counter Thought Evidence: Spanish Flu Pandemic, Asian Flu Pandemic, SARS Epidemic, H1N1 Swine Flu Pandemic, Ebola Epidemic. All of these had start and end dates; thus, the likely outcome will be that COVID-19 will have an end date too!

 

Have a Plan

 

Plan for what you would do if you or a family member gets sick.

  • What small, medium, and large steps need to be taken care of if this happens?
  • Make these plans, while keeping in mind that you and the people you know might not get sick.

Plan for isolation or quarantine.

  • Prepare your home/space to support you during this time.
  • Recognize which resources will be available to you throughout isolation/quarantine, and which ones will not be.

Plan to have a support network.

  • Who will you call/video conference/email during this time of social distancing?
  • We are social creatures, so recognize that even the most solitary of us will benefit from being connected, to some degree. Planning regular virtual coffees or chats using video can go a long way to support connection.

 

Be Mindful

 

  • Recognize that your body processes stress and anxiety in a physical way – find opportunities to be physically active to help reduce the negative impacts of stress and anxiety.
    • When feeling anxious, take your focus away from your thoughts, and turn that focus towards your physical body – helping you to breathe deeply, slow your heart rate, calm an upset stomach, and relax tense muscles. There are apps like Headspace and Calm that can help to guide you through breathing practices, simple meditations, and other techniques.

 

Final Thoughts

As complicated as this world might seem right now, to manage stress and anxiety, it helps to slow down… Slow your thoughts, slow your actions, slow your feelings. Seek to respond to situations rather than react to them. See this Pandemic as an opportunity to become more resilient, skillful, and wise.

Health is the most valuable commodity we have. Prioritizing your health and wellbeing is essential in uncertain times and, as always, our priority at Synthesis Psychology is supporting you. For more strategies to manage anxiety and support your wellbeing, contact us at Synthesis Psychology.

We have expanded our secure videoconferencing and telephone counselling to ensure you can access support even from a distance. Click on the button below to proceed with a complimentary consultation with a Synthesis Psychology Registered Psychologist or Social Worker.

Contact Us

 

 

 

 

By Aaron Telnes M.C.

Registered Psychologist

 

Understanding Anxiety

The stress and anxiety that is created by navigating our lives during the COVID-19 Pandemic is palatable between people (at least 2 metres apart!), across the nation, and around the world. The fear of getting sick, being isolated and/or quarantined, and managing concerns about our personal and professional wellbeing is understandably taxing on the body and mind. It is more important than ever, during this time of risk, uncertainty, and change, to keep our eyes open and our wits about us. Which can be challenging if we are gripped with anxiety, fear, and stress.

The Limbic System
Figure 1. The Limbic System is the part of the brain that controls basic emotions and drives.

As I often describe to my clients, the anxiety centre in our brain – the Limbic System – is ancient, evolutionarily speaking. It developed when we were navigating a much different environment then we do now – an environment with a few more predators and a lot less pre-packaged food.

The Limbic System evolved to help us mitigate those threats in some useful ways, such as with Fight or Flight responses. When you came across a predator that could potentially kill you, your anxiety centre gave you a few options – 1) You could Fight it, if you could win, or 2) You could Flee, if you couldn’t win.

With a few additional evolutionary drives like Find Food and Procreate, we were quite successful at navigating our environment. Now, fast forward to the current day and age, and the COVID-19 Pandemic.

 
The Cerebral Cortex

Our evolutionary drives are still rooted in what they were originally intended for. What has changed, however,

Figure 2. The Cerebral Cortex is the wrinkly outer layer of the brain that controls complex brain functions

is our capacity to solve more complex problems through the development of the Cerebral Cortex. This is the “newest” part of our brain that has allowed us to create advanced developments in social relationships, agricultural practices, societies, sanitation, vaccines, and global trade networks, just to name a few.

What does this all mean when it comes to managing anxiety during the COVID-19 Pandemic? Essentially, it means it is incredibly important to have your “new” brain (Cerebral Cortex) and “old” brain (Limbic System) communicate with each other and collaborate when it comes to managing our thoughts, actions, and feelings. The reason for this is that the old Limbic System was not built to navigate the new environment that the Cerebral Cortex helped to create.

The Limbic System has a vital role to play during this time – to keep us alive and alert! Yet, it can do this much more effectively with the help of the Cerebral Cortex.

 

For example, when the Limbic System is screaming to “Buy all the Food Now!” to keep you alive in the present moment, the Cerebral Cortex will be assessing a whole host of additional variables related to that drive to ensure not just immediate, but long-term survival. As a result, it may suggest: “Buy food more consistently during this time, plan meals, determine availability of money over the short and long-term.”

Figure 3. The Limbic System (left) and the Cerebral Cortex (right)

 

Our ability to survive up to this point as a species was due to the cross-communication between our Limbic System and our Cerebral Cortex. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure the cross-communication continues.

 

Managing Anxiety

To support that continued cross-communication, below are some strategies to support you to manage anxiety during this time:

 

Recognize and Challenge Anxious Automatic Thoughts

 

Automatic thoughts are thoughts that come into your awareness quickly and expect immediate action/reaction, with little to no conscious consideration or reflection.

Give your Cerebral Cortex the opportunity to challenge, modify, or stop the thought or action before engaging in it.

  • Automatic Thought Ex: “This pandemic will never end”.
  • Counter Thought Ex: “History has shown that pandemics end.” “We are more equipped, now than ever, to manage this pandemic effectively”.

Work to find evidence to either accept or reject the thought as being reality-based or imaginary. Not all thoughts are rational or reflect the reality of the situation.

    • Counter Thought Evidence: Spanish Flu Pandemic, Asian Flu Pandemic, SARS Epidemic, H1N1 Swine Flu Pandemic, Ebola Epidemic. All of these had start and end dates; thus, the likely outcome will be that COVID-19 will have an end date too!

 

Have a Plan

 

Plan for what you would do if you or a family member gets sick.

  • What small, medium, and large steps need to be taken care of if this happens?
  • Make these plans, while keeping in mind that you and the people you know might not get sick.

Plan for isolation or quarantine.

  • Prepare your home/space to support you during this time.
  • Recognize which resources will be available to you throughout isolation/quarantine, and which ones will not be.

Plan to have a support network.

  • Who will you call/video conference/email during this time of social distancing?
  • We are social creatures, so recognize that even the most solitary of us will benefit from being connected, to some degree. Planning regular virtual coffees or chats using video can go a long way to support connection.

 

Be Mindful

 

  • Recognize that your body processes stress and anxiety in a physical way – find opportunities to be physically active to help reduce the negative impacts of stress and anxiety.
    • When feeling anxious, take your focus away from your thoughts, and turn that focus towards your physical body – helping you to breathe deeply, slow your heart rate, calm an upset stomach, and relax tense muscles. There are apps like Headspace and Calm that can help to guide you through breathing practices, simple meditations, and other techniques.

 

Final Thoughts

As complicated as this world might seem right now, to manage stress and anxiety, it helps to slow down… Slow your thoughts, slow your actions, slow your feelings. Seek to respond to situations rather than react to them. See this Pandemic as an opportunity to become more resilient, skillful, and wise.

Health is the most valuable commodity we have. Prioritizing your health and wellbeing is essential in uncertain times and, as always, our priority at Synthesis Psychology is supporting you. For more strategies to manage anxiety and support your wellbeing, contact us at Synthesis Psychology.

We have expanded our secure videoconferencing and telephone counselling to ensure you can access support even from a distance. Click on the button below to proceed with a complimentary consultation with a Synthesis Psychology Registered Psychologist or Social Worker.

Contact Us