Updated: Mar 29, 2020
//by Jenna Cook, Me.D., LPCi// With the current pandemic and its effects on our world and community, there is an overwhelming sense of anxiety and uncertainty. We are navigating unchartered territory as we try to decide what’s best for ourselves, our loved ones, our jobs, and our day-to-day lives. There is definitely no rule book for how to proceed when something like this changes life as we know it. In times like these, it is normal and natural to feel helpless, anxious, and concerned.
As humans, most of us thrive when we feel like we have a handle on things. When we are able to predict, plan, and control aspects of our lives, we feel as though we will somehow be prepared for whatever good or bad will happen. We often seek out the feeling of being in control and avoid situations that make us feel out of control.
As humans we all operate out of survival mode and make decisions to protect ourselves and our loved ones. In a time such as this, when our physical and emotional well-being are at risk, it’s okay to feel stressed. If you would like to try to restore a sense of calm and okay-ness, here’s a few things to try:
1. Thank your brain for trying to protect you.
When life throws us a scary, way-bigger-than-us, unpredictable curveball, our brain has a fight, flight, or freeze response. When our brain perceives something as a threat, it throws our body into survival mode by activating our sympathetic nervous system. Our heart rate and breathing increase, our pupils dilate, our muscles tense—all to ready ourselves to fight the danger off or run away from it!
Other ways in which our stress responses are visible during this time are emotionally charged social media comments (fight), stockpiling an excessive amount of supplies (flight), and compulsively refreshing news sites over and over, waiting anxiously for the next update (freeze.) In all of these responses, healthy and effective or not, your brain is doing its best job to protect your body from what it thinks might harm you.
Take a moment to be grateful for that. Thank your brain and nervous system for having your best interest in mind! Give thanks to your anxiety for working to keep you and the ones you love safe.
2. Use your body to tell your brain you’re okay.
Your brain activates your stress response when it perceives there is a threat. That means that there might not be an actual life-threatening stressor present. Just like how your brain sends signals to your body, your body can also send signals to your brain. You can utilize your body to send messages of calm and safety to your brain by taking a few diaphragmatic breaths to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Exercise during stressful times can help expel some energy and requires you to take rhythmic breaths that calm you. Physical activity also helps you feel good about yourself and helps clear your mind, if only for a little while.
Another method called grounding helps you use your body’s 5 senses to tell your brain you’re okay and works to restore logic when you’re feeling overwhelmed or panicked. If you experience anxiety in the evenings or at bedtime, a weighted blanket helps your body convince your brain you are safe, as it mimics the comfort of the womb or being swaddled or held.
3. Remember you don’t have to fight, flight, or freeze alone.
Even though we must be do our part to keep our community and world safe by practicing social distancing, we are not in this stress alone.
As humans, we survive and thrive in community with one another. We have each other’s backs in times of anxiety and overwhelm. When you feel your fight, flight, or freeze response kick in, lean on someone you trust. Talk to them about what you’re experiencing and learn about how they’re responding to the stress. You will learn that you are not alone in your worries and fears.
Come up with a plan for how your household will stay physically, emotionally, and relationally healthy during this time. If needed, turn to a mental health professional—many of which have distance counseling options through video or phone. They are highly trained in working through stress and stress responses and can help you better understand what you are experiencing, as well as how to address it.
Remember that all of us are experiencing similar stress and struggles, even if it presents itself in different ways. Lean on the rest of your human community and show them (and yourself) some grace—we’re all in this together.