We live in a very uncertain time right now given the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19. Many people are losing jobs, whereas others are losing loved ones. The pandemic is a source of great suffering for billions of people all over the world. News stories come out every day showing the extent of the spread of the virus as well as research being published by virologists, epidemiologists, and biologists trying to help politicians and medical professionals understand the virus better, and how to manage the spread of the illness. This is why countries all over the world are using “social distancing” and quarantine procedures.
This is a historic time of uncertainty for so many. In addition to the natural fear for our own and our loved ones’ safety, fear for our jobs, and fear for the future in general, we have the added stress of being stuck inside and unsure of the future of our ability to even go outside safely. Given the unprecedented scope of this pandemic, we want to provide some free resources for everyone so that they can cope better during this pandemic. This first article will explain what anxiety is and how to cope with it better. The second article will explain some simple, evidence-based, ideas for managing a quarantine lifestyle more effectively.
What is Anxiety?
The words fear, dread, terror, panic, anxiety, thrill, and many others are often used to describe what clinicians call anxiety, which is the main feature of common mental health disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder, and so on. Until recently, researchers assumed most people in most parts of the world experienced emotions the same way. Thanks to researchers like Lisa Feldman-Barrett we now know that, for instance, different cultures display anxiety differently in their facial movements and think about anxiety differently. Even though many cultures experience and display anxiety in different ways, or to different degrees of intensity, many if not most people experience the core affective components of anxiety in a very similar way.
Clinicians rely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-5; APA, 2013) to understand and conceptualize anxiety disorders. Many of the disorders in the DSM-5 mentioned above reference symptoms of anxiety such as “restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge,” “being easily fatigued,” “difficulty concentrating or mind going blank,” “muscle tension,” and similar states of mental or physical hyperarousal. As we mentioned above, different cultures might display or subjectively experience anxiety differently. Generally, people will experience some version of “hyperarousal” in their mind or body (affect).
Why do we have anxiety? Well, to the best of our knowledge, we have needed emotions and affects to communicate to ourselves and the world what is going on inside of our minds and bodies. Emotions can be thought of like road signs, they signal what the state of affairs is, and give us some idea of how to act next. If we’re fearful or anxious we might engage in the prototypical “threat” response behaviors: freeze, flight, fight, submit, fright, faint. Each of these responses is adaptive in the sense that they can help us avoid a threat. Let’s say you’re on a safari in Africa because you just want to see the cool animals, sounds fun right? Well, if there’s a cheetah in front of you, you might freeze to assess the circumstances and then maybe run away (flight) to your car wherein they cannot harm you. We need effects like fear or emotions like anxiety in order to prompt us to manage a perceived danger.
Why is perceived bolded and italicized? Well, because we are pretty sophisticated, our brains have evolved to become expert learners. We can learn to fear any number of things that are not innately scary. For instance, we’re not born with a fear of spiders, but we can really easily learn to have fear around them because a few species of spiders are poisonous and can kill humans, and, likely many of our ancestors were killed by bugs. We likely have a “bug could be deadly” sensitivity built into our brains. Also, we have a built hardware system in our brain for categorizing and taking in information from the outside world to see if something is potentially scary or dangerous. Watching movies like Arachnophobia teaches us to perceive spiders as dangerous. So, we can learn to be afraid of things or, said another way, we can perceive non-scary things as scary.
Coping with Anxiety
Right now, amidst the pandemic and quarantine developments, many people are experiencing both natural fear (of dying due to infection) and learned fear (xenophobia against different racial/ethnic groups). It seems like many people are doing their best to cope with their fear/anxiety about the pandemic for the past few weeks. On the other hand, some are reacting automatically to these fears. If you listen to various news commentators or participate in social media you’re likely to see people expressing their fear through humor, anger at officials, confusion, and sharing helpful information. These might be variations on our prototypical threat management responses from earlier on in the article: fight, flight, freeze, faint, fright, or submit. Sharing information might be a “fight” response, whereas gallows humor might be a “submit” response. These are all fine and normal, but they probably do not help with intense anxiety like many of us are feeling nowadays.
When it comes to evidence-based coping skills that are a little more effective at helping manage anxiety/fear we have some pretty solid options:
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
If you would like to learn more about these skills see the links below. Please use them as needed.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UB3tSaiEbNY
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClqPtWzozXs
Mindfulness Meditation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZToicYcHIOU
These tools alone can be helpful in reducing your fear. The problem, however, for many is that the tools might not be enough. For others, there might be underlying issues that make implementing these coping skills difficult. If you find yourself struggling to cope please feel free to reach out to us anytime at 747-222-7464 or at https://www.pcicenters.com/
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