These are highly unnerving times, during which we are likely to be worried about our own and our loved ones’ safety, both physical and financial. But the worst thing we can do in the circumstances is to catastrophise and panic.
When we are stressed, we produce much more of the stress hormone cortisol and that can damp down the immune system, making it far less efficient at fighting off infection—the last thing any of us needs right now.
Fortunately, understandings in line with our human givens can help us to keep better control of our emotions and to react in ways that are protective rather than further endangering us.
First, doing something to help others is known to enhance immune response—probably because we are social animals. Our long-distant ancestors needed to cooperate and look out for each other in order for all to have the best chance of survival. Even if we can’t be in physical contact with our friends, family, and neighbours right now, we are helping ourselves as well as them by checking in on them by phone or online and doing small services, such as dropping off shopping or collecting prescriptions.
Also, it has long been known that laughing can strengthen our immune response—that first came to light decades ago, from a study of the impact of watching a comic film on volunteers’ immune responses.1 The effect is short-lived, however, so we need to keep finding something to laugh about and getting others to laugh with us, to spread the good effects around.
Our imagination is a huge innate resource, designed to help us problem solve—and people with anxiety have plenty of it. Alas, we most commonly use it to conjure up terrifying and highly unlikely scenarios and outcomes. Yet how much more powerful to turn that huge resource to advantage instead, because what the brain focuses on is what the brain tends to get.
Two relatively recent studies have vividly shown this. In one study, participants were asked to think of a happy occasion while they underwent the highly stressful challenge of keeping their hands immersed in ice-cold water. Not only did they feel better afterward than other participants asked to think of a neutral memory while carrying out the same task, but the rise in the stress hormone cortisol was only 15 percent of that observed in the other group.2
The second finding may provide a pleasant, safe way of feeling connected with our loved ones while we are kept apart, and simultaneously help reduce high anxiety and distress, whenever it strikes us. Undergraduates were shown a short film with distressing images and then half were asked to think of “someone in your life who is very supportive to you; the person who you would turn to when you need help; someone who is very close to you and has been there for you when you need them,” and to imagine them vividly for three minutes. Those who brought someone that they cared about to mind in this way experienced far fewer distressing intrusive memories about the film during the next week than those who saw the film but received no such instruction.3
Another innate resource is our ‘observing self,’ our ability to step back and recognise that we are more than our thoughts and our feelings. However, when people get highly anxious, they commonly become consumed by their negative imaginings and rumination, often believing in the truth of them utterly. A helpful way to get a wider perspective is to notice where in the body there are sensations of anxiety (perhaps a tightness in the throat or chest or butterflies in the tummy or sense of dread) and then to choose to let it be there.
Instead of worrying and frantically trying to fight it, try welcoming it: “I know why you are here right now and I can’t do anything more than I am doing to deal with this current situation that we are all in." Then just let it be there alongside you (perhaps even imagine it as a certain shape), while you get on with your day, and don’t pay it attention. You may find that it lessens or, even if it does not, that you are far less aware of it.
Even in these challenging times, we can take simple steps to keep up our spirits and strength, and that of others. Just doing so increases our sense of control, an essential human need.
And it is always good to remember the wise old saying: ‘This, too, shall pass.’
Dillon, K M, Minchoff, B and Baker, K H (1985). International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 15, 13–17.
Speer, M E and Delgado, M R (2017). Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses. Nature Human Behaviour, doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0093
Datta, S and Bryant, R A (2019). Reconsolidating intrusive distressing memories by thinking of attachment figures. Clinical Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/2167702619866387