Anxiety Contagion: Tips for Relief
Science and solutions for the viral spread of anxiety.
Posted Mar 15, 2020
In the face of COVID-19, we’re seeing a viral spread of anxiety contagion. Panic is as contagious as any pathogen and is dangerous in its own right. Research shows that when we see people panicking – buying up all available water, for example – our brains respond with a similar anxiety spike. We’re built that way because it can be adaptive in certain situations. But it can also be maladaptive. Sustained anxiety is literally bad for your health: The more you panic, the less functional your immune system becomes.
The science of anxiety is this: in the face of a real or perceived emergency, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks on, triggering the release of a stress hormone called cortisol. Over time, cortisol suppresses your immune system, causing a decrease in white blood cells – the cells that help you fight off viruses — putting you at greater risk of infection. The more you panic, the less able your body is to fight off illness, and the more prone you are to getting – and staying – sick. It’s therefore important to manage your stress response. These Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)-based tips can help.
1. Stop obsessively checking the news. Establish a time ONCE A DAY to read the news, watch TV headlines, and check social media. Constant updates are stressful and you don’t need them. Want the news? Here it is: The virus is spreading, we’re in a global state of emergency, don’t hang out in big groups or travel, wash your hands, stay home, and physically distance yourself from others. Scary, yes? Great. You know the news, friends. Check it once a day, then go do other things.
2. Check your sources. Read official news or none at all. Do NOT get your news from social media, your freaked-out friends, or any website that isn’t reputable. You’re prone to believing the things you read when you’re anxious, so carefully filter what information goes into your brain. The interwebz are flooded with fake news, inflammatory reports, and panic-inducing sensationalism. Indeed, that’s how most news outlets win followers. The CDC is your best source for reliable health updates.
3. Download these relaxation apps:
- Stop Breathe Think
- Relax Melodies
- Insight Timer
These websites also have great guided meditations for anxiety relief:
Plan to do one guided relaxation exercise twice a day, morning and evening, as if you’re taking anxiety medication. Research shows that these strategies are just as effective, and similarly change your brain chemistry. Administer as needed anytime you feel panicky.
4. Don’t contribute to the panic. By all means, talk to friends and family about your fears. But do NOT flood Facebook and social media with your anxieties. On Twitter today an *uninfected* MD posted that she's written a will and has said goodbye to her children. People are already terrified; how does that help? Take care of your friends and loved ones by reducing anxiety contagion. Hold off on posting those photos of cleaned-out grocery stores and re-sharing that horror story you just heard. Avoid SHOUTY CAPS and EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!! If you have friends who are posting inflammatory posts, temporarily mute them.
5. Maintain social relationships. What’s the worst punishment you can give a human being? It isn’t prison and it isn’t Thanksgiving traffic. The answer is solitary confinement, otherwise known as social isolation. What does it say about us that the worst thing you can do to us is isolate us from others…? Humans are social animals. We’re genetically wired to need each other for food, shelter, and protection against predators. This is never as true as it is during a crisis. In the presence of others, your brain releases chemicals like serotonin (which raises mood), dopamine (confers feelings of pleasure and reward), and endorphins – your natural pain-killers. So even if you’re avoiding group gatherings, make sure to keep in close touch with friends and family. Schedule walks outside (provided you can stay 6-8 feet away from others), Facetime dates, and phone calls. Start group threads. Make virtual dinner dates, online coffee dates, and attend meetings online. Start a neighborhood listserv and offer to help one another. You can even virtually watch movies with friends who live far away. And don't forget to cuddle your pets; fuzz therapy is real.
6. Establish a daily schedule. Social distancing and isolating at home present their own unique challenges, one of which is the loss of your daily routine. This can make us feel anxious and dysregulated. Create a new routine that involves as many components of your regular life as possible, including a wake-time, a sleep-time, exercise, social engagement, and 3 meals. Impose structure as if it was a normal work day: Set your alarm in the morning, exercise, shower, eat breakfast, sit down to do some work, take scheduled breaks, etc.
7. Separate work space from living space. If you’re working from home, carving out a work space will help you separate work from the rest of your life. This can help you stay organized and focused; more importantly, it can help you feel less trapped and claustrophobic. Your work space can be an office, a writing desk in the corner, even the dining room table – as long as it’s a designated work space separate from your regular activities of daily living. When you’re done with work for the day, leave that space – and all work – behind.
8. Leave the house. The CDC hasn’t mandated that you stay quarantined inside all day (yet). Don’t fall into the trap of endlessly sitting on the couch in your pajamas for days on end. It will only make you feel imprisoned, and increase the likelihood that you'll get *more* anxious and depressed. Get out and see the sky, even if you just stand in the sun for 10-minute intervals. Go for a "socially-distanced" walk, water your garden, bring the dog to a park. (To dispell a rumor: your pets CANNOT give you coronavirus, experts say - so keep cuddling them!)
9. Get out into nature. Research shows that nature – trees, birdsong, sun, sky – improves mood, lowers stress and anxiety, reduces blood pressure, and improves overall sense of well-being. Stand outside in the sun and breathe fresh air. Go on a solo bird-watching walk with binoculars. Study bumblebees in the backyard. If you need to stay inside, jump online to witness the UC Berkeley falcons hatch their eggs (there are 4)! Or download an app like Rain Rain, and listen to soothing nature sounds. It can really help.
10. Exercise! One of the biggest risks of staying home and inside is being sedentary. Our bodies are built to move, and we need exercise to stay healthy and sane. When we exercise, our brains produce important neurochemicals that regulate mood, like serotonin, and our bodies eat up stress hormones like cortisol. This makes exercise particularly important in times of high stress. Go for a run or walk outside in the sun someplace remote. Take a long bike ride in the hills. Do push-ups, sit ups, strength training, weight-lifting, yoga videos, and cardio videos at home.
11. Distract, soothe, and stay busy. If you don’t have anything to do, your mind will fixate on your anxieties. Distract and soothe using physical activities (build something, draw, write, bake, exercise), cognitive activities that engage your mind (Sudoku, crossword puzzles, books, movies, board games, podcasts—my favorite is Ologies!), and sensations (take a bath, drink a mug of hot tea, eat a favorite meal, listen to soothing music). This is the time to take care of brain and body.
12. Get support. In the face of a global pandemic, anxiety is NORMAL - not a sign of mental illness. There are therapists out there trained to help us navigate this panic, and there's never been a better time to get one. Most have migrated online and have extra openings. Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), or sign up for breath work with expert physiotherapists to help lower anxiety. (Try these breathing practices daily, they're great.)
13. Whiskey. This one comes with plenty of caveats, but I'm pretty sure this is why whiskey was invented, folks.
Please share this post with anyone who needs some stress relief. Stay safe and stay sane, everyone. This, too, shall pass.
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