Unprecedented times. Uncharted waters. Whatever the descriptor, we’ve never quite found ourselves in a situation like this before. With the rapidly escalating Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic changing nearly every aspect of our lives overnight, we’re being forced to adapt. Whether slow and steady or rapid in its progression, adaptation is an incredible thing. Our flexibility and openness to change is the secret to not only surviving, but to thriving as a species. The science of behavioral health has been studying hardship, adaptability, and resilience since the 1970’s. Luckily the field has much to offer about not only managing stress, but using stress and adversity as a catalyst for growth.
The science of emotions tells us that negative emotions, such as fear, anger and sadness are actually healthy and useful. Anxiety, for example, is an adaptive response that drives us to take action for our safety and the safety of others. Threats to our safety, health, and well-being and that of those we love are indeed real threats. In response, your sympathetic nervous system sends a jarring alarm signal to get your ready to fight or flee - quickening your heart rate, respiration, muscle tension, and blood circulation. Social distancing initiatives and engaging in thoughtful hygiene are rational responses, driven by the helpful nature of fear and worry. Too much anxiety, however, leads to panic which fuels irrational and catastrophic thinking. This can impair our ability to respond effectively to keep ourselves and our communities safe (think hoarding behavior). The Yerkes-Dodson law postulates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (stress), but only up to a point. When the level of stress becomes too high, performance decreases. This is particularly true for difficult or unfamiliar tasks, for example, coping with a global pandemic.
Our bodies each have a built in relaxation response, triggered by the parasympathetic nervous system. This response counters the fight-or-flight response and brings our body back to pre-stress levels. With slowed respiration, muscle relaxation and reduced blood pressure, we regain the mental clarity to engage in higher order thinking, including rational decision-making and complex problem-solving- skills unnecessary during the high-test levels of threat. It’s often said, you’re not supposed to be doing long division while being chased by a saber-tooth tiger. Strategies such as progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, yoga, mindfulness, practicing gratitude, social connection, learning the facts, reducing media exposure, exercising, being in the outdoors and engaging in helping behavior all can trigger the relaxation response. Learning to separate feelings from facts allows us all to approach situations from a more rational standpoint.
During periods of emotional upset, we are actively motivated to do something to relieve our distress. Avoidance is a sure fire way to get short-term relief. However, there’s a catch. Although avoidance provides temporary relief, we’re in essence figuratively kicking the emotional can down the road. Not only will our distress return, but unexamined distress often comes back bigger and more challenging than before. Anxiety highlights a cognitive distortion: that worrying (thoughts) or trying to exert control (behavior) might lend more certainty to an uncertain world. At the Courage Project, we teach children a mindfulness-based CBT acronym, PACE, to guide us through the process of noticing, acknowledging, and ultimately, accepting difficult emotions.
Instead of chasing down your worries, focus on accepting that this is a time when fear and worry will occur. Give yourself permission to have these feelings without judgement or avoidance. Use this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself during times of fear. What does fear feel like in our bodies? What worries come to us most easily? What are we most strongly pulled to do in response? This exercise can help us can gain important insight, or knowledge about ourselves and our processes. From this place of knowledge and compassion, we will more easily calm our bodies and minds, enabling us to choose a purposeful rather than reactive response. Our inner knowledge regarding how to proceed will come much more easily to us. We may find our way to choosing values-driven actions so that we can act in a way that makes us feel proud of our response. We may choose to create meaning out of seemingly meaningless experiences, giving us a greater sense of agency and peace.
Although we may not have signed up for this impromptu therapy session, COVID-19 has the potential to teach us some valuable lessons about not only fear, but also about caring for ourselves and others. Let’s use this as our invitation to live harmoniously in an uncertain world, where we can embrace our emotions as the ultimate catalyst for choosing a life driven by our values and filled with meaning.