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Anxiety Contagion: Tips for Relief

Science and solutions for the viral spread of anxiety.

How to achieve calm in a state of panic.
Source: Zoffness

In the face of COVID-19 - and now, vaccine hesitancy - 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 stress hormones like 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 anxiety and stress. These tips can help:

1. Stop obsessively checking the news. Instead of doom-scrolling day and night, which is bad for your brain and body, limit your screen time. 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 still spreading, people are dying around the world, wash your hands, wear masks when required, get vaccinated ASAP. 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 random people on social media, your 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 internet is flooded with fake news, inflammatory reports, and panic-inducing sensationalism. Indeed, that’s how most news outlets win followers. The CDC and the Department of Health in your state are the best sources of reliable updates.

3. Download relaxation apps to turn off the anxiety alarm:

  • Headspace
  • Calm
  • Stop Breathe Think
  • Relax Melodies
  • Insight Timer

Use these free websites with 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 social media with your anxieties. On Twitter today an *uninfected* man posted that he's written a will and has said goodbye to his 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 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. Setting boundaries isn't only okay, it's critical.

5. Stay social. 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. Make sure to keep in close touch with friends and family. If you can't be in person, schedule Facetime dates and make phone calls. Start group threads. Plan dinner dates and online coffee dates. 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. Spending more time at home presents its 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 three 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. 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 increases 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. Drive to a remote location and take a walk, or park at your favorite lookout. Go for a "socially-distanced" walk, water your garden, bring the dog to a park. And if nothing else, GET OUT OF YOUR PAJAMAS.

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 bird-watching walk with binoculars. Study bumblebees in the backyard. Read with friends in your garden. If you need to stay inside, jump online to witness the UC Berkeley falcons hatching their eggs. 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 someplace remote. Take a long bike ride in the hills. Craft a workout routine in your yard. Do push-ups, sit ups, strength training, weight-lifting, yoga videos, and cardio videos at home.

11. Self-soothe and distract. 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), 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 a therapist. In the face of a global pandemic, anxiety is NORMAL - not a sign of mental illness. There are trained therapists out there available to help us navigate this mess, 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 biofeedback. Having a therapist doesn't make you crazy - it makes you smart.

13. Use your resources! There are a ton of great workbooks out there, whether you're dealing with anxiety, depression, or chronic pain. Full of great tips and tools, they're affordable, available on Amazon, and easy to use from home.

Please share this column with anyone who needs some anxiety-relief. Stay safe and stay sane, everyone. This, too, shall pass.


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