The Coronavirus Emergency Mood Management Toolbox
An anxious therapist shares six tools for calming the panicked brain.
Posted Mar 26, 2020
I am an anxious person who also happens to be a psychotherapist. I had my first panic attack after graduating from college. In my book, Why Good Sex Matters, I share how my anxiety wiring drove me to study and teach the mood management tools I've needed to know. And when practiced, these tools work pretty well, most of the time. In fact, I recently surprised myself by appearing on the Today Show without getting nervous despite my wiring.
Here is a brief overview of my own, empirically-based tools for managing the panic brain during the coronavirus challenge.
1. Harness Your Breath
The simplest and most powerful way to calm the panic brain is to harness the power of your breath to elicit what is called the relaxation response.
If possible, breathe in and out through the nostrils. If not, just breathe. Take a long smooth inhalation (e.g., for the count of four). Then a longer smooth exhalation (e.g., for the count of six). Rinse and repeat.
What this does is signals to your body to activate the calming portion of your nervous system. It changes your body chemistry. Do this whenever you notice tension in your body. Make this a conscious practice throughout your day.
And while you are breathing, tell yourself this: "I already have all of the inner resources to create everybody and everything I need." This is my go-to self-soothing message I learned training in Eriksonian hypnotherapy.
Now that we've grounded our nervous system, we get to enlist our seeking system—our wired-in ability to get curious, mobilize, and explore. This system is powered by the neurotransmitter dopamine and can be easily hijacked by spending too much time on our devices. This has been contributing to the pleasure crisis and sex recession. (For more information about how our seeking systems are being dysregulated and what to do about this, read Why Good Sex Matters).
2. Crisis Presents Opportunity So Get Curious
This is actually an easy step once you ground yourself with your breath. We can develop grit (the ability to dig in and take action) and gain a new perspective by getting curious and engaging our play systems. What is the play system? Nature wired animals (including us) with the ability to explore and play so we can learn. For most of us grownups, the play system is squashed.
Active coping involves rallying our core emotions of seeking and care (the system nature gave us to bond with others, powered by our own opioids that give us feelings of well-being) and our wired-in capacity to play by being creative.
Get curious! Ask yourself, "I wonder how I can use this opportunity to learn, grow, and thrive?"
When we ask ourselves these questions, we are implicitly suggesting to ourselves that we can learn, grow, and thrive. And simply staying with this question is powerful. Plant it in the crockpot of your magnificent brain/mind/body and let it simmer.
What will help this process of thriving? Attuning to ourselves. Mind, body, emotional weather.
3. Tune Into You
This step becomes a glorious self-care practice that will empower your ability to thrive. You simply ask yourself the following three questions three times per day. You can supercharge this by writing your answers down in a journal or sharing it with someone else.
What's on my mind?
Most of us can easily answer this. There is a constant flow of thoughts across the surface of the mind. We just need to learn how to witness this. We are not our thoughts. We are simply thinkers. Watching our thoughts is the first step in not letting them get the best of us.
What's going on in my body?
This can be a harder question as often people are so consumed by their thoughts, they forget they even have a body. When I ask clients to pay attention to the sensations in their bodies, they often look puzzled.
An easy way to do this is to scan your body from head to toe and simply notice any sensations. Tightness? Tingling? Pressure? Warmth? Cold? Butterflies? Heaviness? Lightness?
Life is indeed sensational when we get in touch with our sensations.
What's my emotional weather?
By acknowledging these emotions, we can allow them to be as they are. We can allow ourselves to be as we are. We can feel our feelings and then they peak and release. This takes us to the practice of radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is a powerful mindfulness tool that allows us to start by being where we are.
4. Turn Off Distractions
This step can be challenging which is why it comes after the other steps. This is when we do some habit busting. We unplug from our devices. Three times a day, take a total break from all devices—turn them off or put them away in another room.
Why is this important?
Short answer: continuously monitoring our devices is bad for us.
Continuous partial attention is a term that describes how we constantly divide our attention. Think of it as being plugged into our devices on standby. We wait for notifications, messages, likes, and other input. We are no longer present to the moment. We are no longer present to the people in the room. This hijacks our emotional brains and sabotages our capacity to connect to others. This contributes to the sexual recession and pleasure crisis.
This also results in higher levels of emotional distress. Our defenses of fear, rage, and panic increase. This robs us of the benefits of satisfying intimacy—both in and out of the bedroom. As it happens good relationships (intimate and otherwise) are the best natural mood stabilizers and stress-management tools known to man.
5. Move Your Body
The best way we can move through our emotional weather is to move our bodies and change our physical states. In the wake of the coronavirus challenge (or any other challenge) take yourself outside and walk. We need natural sunlight for the proper operation of our core emotional systems.
Fun fact: Did you know that sunlight goes directly from the back of the eye to the hypothalamus (which controls just about everything in the way of our hormones and body functioning)?
Sunlight and movement together are natural wellbeing promoters. We can flatten the coronavirus curve and boost our immunity with some fresh air.
6. Connect Consciously
What do you do when you are taking a break from your devices? You could pay attention to the people in the room. That's why our parents’ generation had more sex than we do. Less distraction leads to more attraction! Accessing the lust system can be extremely beneficial. Sex (with yourself or others) may boost immunity. Nature in her infinite wisdom wired in our urge to merge.
By the way, if you don't have access to people in the room, then digital means such as FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype can provide those same benefits to the brain.
Fun fact: Hearing other human beings voices (when they are friendly and soothing) helps decrease our stress reactions.
Forget about texting when it comes to connecting. Listening to the voice of someone is much better! Next to that is seeing them virtually. The best of all is face-to-face and flesh-to-flesh connection, (providing that we use common sense about exposure to the coronavirus).
Life is full of catastrophe. By radically accepting this, we can do our best to deal with anxiety and stress.
We can actively cope with the coronavirus, soothe our panic systems, and cooperate to flatten the curve. We can take this challenge as an opportunity to reboot our emotional systems for the better if we understand how our brains work and react in a self-aware manner. Most importantly, make sure you're allowing yourself to access that pleasure brain.
Wise, N. (2020). Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. Houghton Mifflin.