Neuroscience

Managing Fears, Anxiety and Stress During Pandemic Crisis

Neuroscience; Mindfulness; the NeuroMindfulness Institute;

Guest post by The NeuroMindfulness Institute

Note from Magda: you might know already that I am really passionate about neuroscience. Well, Veronica and Arnaud, from The NeuroMindfulness Institute have a lot to do with this passion of mine and they have helped me advance my learning in this field. So it really made me happy when they accepted my request of sharing one of their articles on my blog, especially as managing fear, anxiety and stress is such an important skill in these unusual times.

I am currently following their NeuroMindfulness Online Coach Certification Course (now at 72% 🙂 ) and I am really enjoying every minute of it. The breadth of content (covering areas such as Stress and Well-being, Cognitive Performance, Trust and Human Connection, as well as a very comprehensive set of Mindfulness Practices) is really appealing to the neuroscience geek in me :).

And… because I honestly enjoy this course so much, we have come to an agreement and formed a partnership: my readers can access their course (usually priced at EUR695+VAT) with a 15% discount (EUR104). Yaaayyyy!! Here’s to the joy of spreading the neuroscience love!

If you are interested in the course, just have a look HERE to see more about its content and use the discount code mt15 at check-out. I hope you will find it as useful as I did!

Let’s get back now to our subject of today 🙂 – meaning, their guest article on my blog. I hope you will enjoy it and find it useful!


Managing Fears, Anxiety and Stress During Pandemic Crisis

The world is facing the biggest sanitary challenge of our generation! 

On top of the fears related to the exponential spreading of the virus and the number of deaths accumulating, around 1/3 of the world population was confined to homes as of March 27th, 2020, causing a huge disruption in the global economy and in the lives of everyone.

Feelings like anxiety, fear, worry are absolutely normal in these chaotic and uncertain times. Some of us probably already experience them, and most of us will probably experience them at some point in the evolution of the crisis.

Most of us are overwhelmed by having to adapt to a lockdown situation, taking care of our children and vulnerable family members, while keeping connected with work, where we have to manage crisis situations.

Being aware of what is happening in our minds in the first step to managing it and getting back in control.

In this article, you will understand the neuropsychological mechanisms of fear, anxiety and stress, and explore strategies to better navigate this crisis, in order to keep a clear mind and an open heart when we most need them.

1. What are fear & anxiety?

Fear is our most ancestral survival response. It has been very useful for our survival in evolution, but it also highjacks our thinking brains and generates stress that weakens our immune system.  

Fear activates a small part of the brain called the amygdala, which inhibits our Prefrontal cortex, the thinking part, or the CEO of our brain. When the amygdala is highjacked, we lose 75% of our cognitive capacities, and we cannot focus on anything else than the threat.

When fear activates the amygdala, it activates one of 3 types of responses: Fight, Flight or Freeze. Those among us who are hyperactive in order to cope with the situation and experience feelings of anger and frustration are probably in the Fight response. Those who are caught in an anxiety spiral, focusing on their worries are probably in the flight response. Others are probably experiencing a strong lack of motivation and a feeling of helplessness, or depression, which are characteristics of the Freeze response.

Fear is a highly contagious emotions, which helped us, social animals, to survive when we were threatened by predators. When 1 horse starts running out of fear, the whole herd follows him. We experience this often these days, and we absorb unconsciously the fears of other people, on top of those generated by our own minds. Seeing people in fear is enough for this unconscious emotional contagion to occur. Of course, reading catastrophic news and social media posts is also amplifying our feelings of fear.

Anxiety arises from abnormal regulation of fear: it means being overly worried about a perceived threat

When your worries are persistent or out of proportion to the reality of the threat, and get in the way of you living your life, you are probably experiencing an anxiety disorder. 

Fear and anxiety are fuelling each other in a vicious circle: each time we experience fear, it leaves a trace on our unconscious mind, which is more diffuse and longer-lasting than the fear episode itself. The accumulation of these traces gives rise to anxiety. In turn, anxiety sets the threshold for fear, which means that when we are anxious, we react with much more fear to potential threats.

If you want to assess if you might be suffering from anxiety, you can answer these questions: How many times did I experience the following problems over the past 2 weeks?:

  • Feeling nervous, anxious or on the edge
  • Not being able to stop or control worrying
  • Worrying too much about different things
  • Trouble relaxing
  • Being so restless that it’s hard to sit still
  • Becoming easily annoyed or irritable
  • Feeling afraid as if something awful might happen

You can take the free self-diagnosis questionnaire on this page where you will also find a lot of helpful resources : https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/clinical-resources/anxiety/anxiety-self-test

2. From anxiety to chronic stress

Fear & anxiety generates stress. When this state is maintained for longer time, it becomes chronic stress. This is further amplified these days by several things:

  1. The massive life habits disruption that we all are experiencing during this lockdown period.
  2. The higher than usual need for multitasking, having to juggle between taking care of our families, our teams, our businesses, cooking at home, etc. We know that the brain cannot multitask, it can only switch between tasks, and trying to do so results in a huge cognitive cost
  3. The lack of control and uncertainties over the evolution of the situation.

Stress is the body’s method of reacting to a condition such a threat, challenge or physical and psychological barrier.

Our bodies are designed to react to acute stress, but chronic stress has severe negative consequences.

Let’s focus here on 3 consequences of chronic stress:

1. It leads to a decline in cognitive performance

Stress is mediated by a cocktail of hormones, among which cortisol and adrenaline are the most important. When stress is too intense or prolonged for a long period, it has 3 consequences on our cognitive performance:

  • It decreases our attention skills, and in particular our capacity to focus. You might have noticed that it is particularly challenging to keep your mind focused on a task these days.
  • It increases our mind wandering. This is driven by the activity of a neural network called the Default Mode Network, which is activated by chronic stress. It projects us either in the past, leading to ruminations, or in the future, often leading to worries, and takes us away from the present moment.
  • It decreases our working memory. Our working memory is how much information we can hold in our conscious mind. It is key for reasoning skills, and to make associations required for creative thinking.

2. It leads to a higher negativity bias

“Negative emotions scream, while positive emotions whisper”. Our brains are hard-wired by evolution to pay much more attention to threats than to nice things in life, for obvious survival reasons. Our brains are designed to keep us safe, not happy.

Although most moments in life are actually positive, we simply do not pay attention to them. In stressful times, it is even harder to counteract this negativity bias, which is why we tend to pay much more attention to bad news and to have a tendency to imagine worst case scenarios.

3. It decreases the strength of our immune system

The stress hormone cortisol is known to inhibit our immune system. 

Furthermore, chronic stress generates inflammation, which generates small non-targeted damages in our tissues, further triggering the stress response. 

In other words, the more stressed you are, the less chances you have to successfully fight an infection. Many people carry the COVID-19 virus without any symptoms, while others will develop mild symptoms, and the most unfortunate will develop severe forms leading to hospitalization and death. The strength of your immune system will be key in determining which of these 3 scenarios will happen if you are infected.

After understanding the negative effects of chronic stress, the good news is that these consequences are not a fatality. They are not so much due to the events causing the stress, but to how we relate to stress. Although we have no control over the events, we can control our reactions to them.

3. How to successfully navigate the crisis

We cannot control the situation, but we can choose how we respond to it:

  • We can further fuel the stress by staying hooked to bad news and imagining all the worst-case scenarios

or:

  • We can react in a calm and rational way, focus on what we can control, and leverage the upside of stress

We are all juggling between different priorities: our families, our team, our business, and we often forget the most important one: ourselves. If we fail to take care of ourselves, and to take a bit of time to make sure we are grounded and emotionally balanced, we cannot offer any support to others. Remember that all emotions are contagious. Therefore, when you invest some time and energy to balance your own mind and emotions, you are indirectly helping everyone you interact with.

Staying healthy, physically and mentally, during a pandemic crisis is not an easy job. We selected 10 daily practices that will help you go through the crisis while keeping your mind clear and your heart open. All these practices are backed by scientific research, and we have practiced them for several years.

These practices have been structured into the B.M.E. (Body – Mind – Environment) resilience framework by NeuroMindfulness Institute:

The Visual Help 1 - Managing Fears, Anxiety and Stress During Pandemic Crisis
Source: The NeuroMindfulness Institute; Illustrations by https://thevisualhelp.com/

BODY

  • Sleep 7-8h per night 
  • Stay away from junk food and stockpile healthy, nutritious food, hydrate well, in particular with hot drinks.
  • Keep moving your body even if you are stuck at home, since it improves mood and response to stress. Yoga is perfect for home practice since you only need a mat.
  • Pacify your mind and oxygenate your brain by taking deep, slow breaths. Practicing 10-15 min of slow breathing exercises daily will help a lot to manage your stress and build focus. Our recommendation is to straighten your back, breathe deeply through the abdomen, with the following rhythm: 4 seconds deep inhale / 8 seconds breath hold with full lungs / 8 seconds exhale. If you want to learn more about the power of breathing to control our minds, we invite you to read our dedicated blog article: “Breathing, the key to our minds”.

MIND

  • Practice Self-compassion: It is normal to feel anxious, don’t add self-judgement to it. Remove the guilt of not being at 100% of your productivity and treat yourself with the same kindness as you would treat a friend. Putting into perspective our own suffering by recognizing that we are all faced with the same situation helps to shift the focus away from our own worries and frustrations.
  • Cultivate Growth Mindset: We do not control the evolution of the crisis, but how we react to it. If we manage to turn around stress by reflecting on what we can learn from the experience and see it as a challenge to overcome, we activate what scientists call the “challenge response”. This triggers the release of the hormone DHEA, which counteracts the negative effects of cortisol on immunity, helps neuroplasticity, and generates a feeling of self-confidence, and motivation to learn from a tough experience.
  • Practice Mindfulness. Meditation does not aim at repressing negative emotions, but rather at letting them express and observe them with detachment. There is now a lot of scientific evidence that mindfulness practices improve resilience and make the amygdala less reactive. If you already have a meditation practice, it is the right time to deepen it. If you are a beginner, there are tons of resources available to help you build a practice. You can search for these types of meditation: focusing on the breath, body-scan, loving-kindness.
  • Practice Gratitude to offset negative thoughts. The practice is very simple since it consists in journaling everyday something you are grateful for. Several studies have demonstrated that such a practice frees us from toxic emotions, that it works even if you do not share it with the person to whom you are grateful. The benefits are measurable in 4 weeks, and are more pronounced after 12 weeks. They result in thickening of the medial Prefrontal Cortex, which is key for learning and decision-making. Those effects are maintained 3 months after the practice.

ENVIRONMENT

  • Optimize your physical environment: If possible, during the confinement, try to keep dedicated spaces for your different activities, keep your environment tidy, and bring some clean air.
  • Strengthen your human relationships: This is probably the most important recommendation in these turbulent times, since it activates what scientists call the “tend and befriend” response.

Let’s dwell a little bit on the last one since it is probably one of the most effective ways to turn stress around. The “tend a befriend” response is a positive stress response that consists in reaching out and taking care of dear ones, family, close friends and colleagues, when feeling stressed. It causes the release of the hormone oxytocin, which helps us connect with others and inhibits the fear centers of the brain. It also activates the brain’s reward centers, which secrete dopamine, the pleasure hormone, which makes us feel confident and optimistic. 

Activating this response might be very different for many of us, depending on with whom we are confined. For those of us who have young kids, this confinement period probably requires to be present with them much more than we would do in normal time. This can be a great opportunity to strengthen the relationship, although it certainly keeps us very busy. For those who do not have kids or who live alone, the situation will look very different, and digital technologies will be the only way to reach out to dear ones. In this case, do some video calls instead of text messaging or phone, in order to leverage the unconscious exchange of facial expressions that allows us to share emotions.

The great thing about this response is that it will make you feel better but, since oxytocin secretion is contagious, it will also greatly help them go through the crisis. 

Women are naturally more prone to “tend and befriend’ because they release more oxytocin than men, but men can also activate it and maybe learn from women :).

What you need to do is to shift your attention from your social media, newsfeed or TV to your dear ones, and offer them full presence, active listening and compassion. 

For leaders, the pandemic crisis represents an opportunity to lead with wisdom. If you focus on your people in an ethical way, you can drive up trust, teamwork, compassion and resilience. This will be of paramount importance when the world gets back to normal, since they are the ones who will rebuild it. Do not overwhelm them but take away the guilt of being less productive when they have to take care of their families on top of their normal work. Put people first, business second.

The events have a lot of reasons to trigger anxiety, but mass panic can only make things worse. If we act with wisdom in these challenging times, we could grow collectively as a society from this experience. Sometimes societies need a wake-up call to transform. This might be it if we manage to let go of fear and blame, in order to address the crisis from a clear and compassionate mind.

Sources:

Tabibnia G. and Radecki D., 2018. “Resilience training that can change the brain”. Consulting physiology journal : Practice and Research, 2018

Kelly McGonigal, 2015. “The upside of stress“

Harnessing the upsides of stress. Harvard Health publishing (https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/harnessing-the-upsides-of-stress)

Joel Wong, Joshua Brown, greater good science center. https://gratefulness.org/resource/gratitude-changes-brain/

Kristin Neff. https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/

Black Dog Institute: https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/clinical-resources/anxiety/anxiety-self-test

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