Staying Healthy in a COVID-19 World
How to manage your mental health in this crisis.
Posted March 13, 2020
If you’re feeling anxious or stressed about COVID-19, please know that your reaction is very understandable. There’s two parts of our brain very relevant to this issue. The first is our “caveman” brain. Our caveman brain controls things like emotions, automatic thoughts, learning, and memories. It is always functioning and there’s no way to turn it on or off. It is built for survival and has evolved over time to be hyper vigilant to risk and threat. This is, of course, highly adaptive as a cave person. Because of the threat of COVID-19, our caveman brains are “on fire”. So if you notice feeling more worried or anxious, this is completely to be expected. If you already have an anxiety disorder then you can expect to see an increase in your symptoms. This is millions of years of evolution in action, trying to protect you.
But our caveman mind doesn’t always give us good advice for our modern world. For example, as of March 12, 2020, there were 138 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada. In fact, many cases are unfortunately hidden. For example, on January 21st, in Hubei province there were around 100 new cases. In reality, there were 1,500 new cases that day (people not yet sick and not yet diagnosed) and growing exponentially. It’s just to keep in mind that our caveman mind doesn't use statistics. It might underestimate the risk so you don't do anything (e.g., ignore social distancing policies) or overestimate risk to the point it might be unhelpful (e.g., stockpiling toilet paper). Often, we need to calm our caveman mind down enough to make good decisions.
The other important part of our brain is our frontal lobe. This is the most recently evolved part of our brain and it controls behavior. This is what we use to start and stop behavior, to plan, and to use “willpower” or “self-control”. Whereas our caveman mind works automatically and outside conscious control, we have to “turn on” our frontal lobe. It’s like a battery and we can “drain” the battery using it to function during our day. That’s why binge eating and emotional eating are more likely to happen in the evenings than in the mornings, because we have “spent” our frontal lobe battery and there’s not much left to control our behavior. But because our caveman brain is always functioning, it’s still there to offer us a way to “feel better” with food (at least in the short term). Most of us plug our cell phones in each day, but have you done something deliberate to charge your frontal lobe today? Consider finding and making use of “recharging” activities, which are things that make you feel more energetic when you finish than when you start. Common recharging activities include sleep, eating healthy foods, connecting with loved ones, find ways to laugh and to take a “mental break” from all the media coverage of COVID-19.
And there are effective things you can do regarding COVID-19. We all know about hand washing and staying home if you're sick. Social distancing is one key way to keep everyone healthy! Using social distancing measures can help reduce the death rate by a factor of 10! We can help reduce the strain on the healthcare system and ensure people get the treatment they need by "flattening the curve", by following self-isolation and social distancing measures. And remember, you will need your frontal lobe activated and charged in order to follow through on these recommendations.
It’s also critical to be compassionate to ourselves and others in a crisis. Mr. Rogers used to say that when something bad happens, don’t just focus on the bad thing that happened, also notice all the people who rush in to help. Compassion is about common humanity and recognizing suffering and wanting to alleviate. You are not alone in this crisis. You are not alone in feeling anxious and worried. This is, in fact, a global crisis, and the whole world is working in addressing this issue. We are better together than apart. So be kind and compassionate to yourself if you’re feeling more anxious (this is just millions of years of evolution in action!) and be kind and compassionate to others (we are all struggling to handle this stress). And we will handle this better if we do it together and with compassion and with a charged frontal lobe!