Joseph Smullen, LCSW
The unknown related to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has created an extreme effort to control a perception of scarce resources resulting in panic shopping and hoarding of goods. To a lesser extreme, a more prevalent experience has been an exasperation of anxiety related to a slowing economy, worries about loved ones, changes in routines and habits, and altered lifestyles. This blog post will briefly touch on the complexity of our reactions and offer 5 tips to create mental distancing to reduce anxiety.
The Limbic Brain
If you ask a neuroscientist or a neuropsychologist, the explanation of anxiety and fear motivated behaviors becomes quite complex. However, it is most important to understand that we have regions of our brain associated with action, thinking, and emotion that are wired together in bi-directional pathways which we can learn to manage to improve our responses to the conditions of human existencesuch as viruses. One of the culprits for our fear and anxiety based emotional reactions and corresponding impulsive reactions for our toilet paper hoarding lie, at least in part, in our emotional limbic system. The limbic system contains our threat detecting network made up of the emotional amygdala, the hippocampus which provides historical context for the threat, the anterior cingulate cortex involved in attention, and the homeostasis-oriented hypothalamus which initiates the stress response. That is, when our crude limbic system detects danger based on real or imagined internal data ( anxious thinking “If I don’t buy all I can I will run our or there won’t be any for me” along with historical memory retrieval) and/or external data (watching or viewing images of others swarming grocery stores), it initiates the stress response which results in a dynamic and multilevel release of chemicals and hormones designed to initiate action to keep us safe and alive. As we have witnessed, our behavioral actions of panic shopping is an attempt to control a situation that our engineering has determined as threatening to our survival. The limbic system is dynamically related to the action, attention, memory, and thinking regions of our brain all of which are interconnected as well. And unfortunately, the thinking regions tend to be like my 11-year-old when it’s time to do her chores, missingin action. The limbic system is not bad, instead it is just doing what it was designed or evolved to do depending on your belief system. Instead it is our prefrontal cortex (PFC) responsible for high level planning, goal setting, decision making, abstract thought, and inhibition of impulses and the ventral striatum, associated with reward processing, pleasure, impulsive choices, and reinforcement, that needs some adjusting. Below are 5 mental distancing tips to help you use your PFC to work with and around the COVID-19 crisis.
1. Reflection on your thoughts by looking at them from an outside perspective.
Out of a therapy called, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, comes a skill called “cognitive-defusion,” which is designed to take the power and perception of infallible truth out of your thoughts/feelings. This will require you to dig out your implicit and hidden thoughts beyond the surface.
Skill: Take an anxious thought and do the following: write down, say it aloud in a funny voice, look at the absurdity of the thought, and add on the phrase “I’m noticing I think” to the beginning of this thought. Example: “I am noticing that I think I must buy all the eggs I can right now or I may not survive.” Absurd add on: “I notice I am thinking that I may be the only one without eggs in my tacos. And they may eventually stop poultry farming.” Now say this aloud in a funny accent.
2. See the reward for modifying your plans not just the inconvenience.
Reward driven behaviors initiate daily action in our lives, mostly mindlessly. For example, some of us habitually consume caffeine, a CNS stimulant, which is reinforced with the reward of alertness and attention with removal of grogginess that enables us to perform tasks more efficiently for a time. We are often not mindful of the reward, that is, we are not aware that something that we like was added and/or something that we don’t like was removed. Even more so, we do not recognize a reward for an alternative choice, one we can only appreciate through reflection.
Skill: Write down, discuss with a loved one or friend, and/or reflect on the alternative rewards for temporary social distancing such as the return of family game night, creating a new Tik Tok dance video, reading a good book, re-discovering your partner, saving money eating in, investigating a new hobby, planning your summer out, spring cleaning etc.… This alternative reward skill can be used to create mental distancing with any of the disruption to daily routines you are experiencing.
3. Compassion over competition for perceived scare resources.
Anxiety is an inevitable human emotion in facing human conditions. We can attempt to manage the anxiety with panic shopping, hoarding, not checking our irrational thinking, and by communicating fear messages to friends, family, social media followers, neighbors etc.. Yet a more powerful antidote for managing this anxiety exists in the form of compassion. The emotion of compassion, defined as the desire to reduce another’s suffering, has biopsychosocial health benefits that are well documented as it motivates cooperation, altruism, and kind actions while helping us to transcend our own suffering.
Skill: Substitute compassion over competition for perceived scare resources to create needed mental space.
4. Turn off the news and turn on a new habit in the form of exercise, awe-seeking, gratitude, breathing exercises,meditation, yoga, prayer and/or laughter.
Each of these actions has scientifically and clinically based benefits in caring for stress-based reactions to events. The news and social media feeds are at great at delivering a steady dose of threats to which we react physically, chemically, hormonally, psychologically, and socially.
Skill: Create mental space and healthy distance with your own personalized daily dose of these strategies. Some ideas are to: create an awe playlist on youtube of things that amaze you, sign up for an online meditation course, watch your top 3 comedy movies of all time, begin a gratitude text thread with friends and family.
5. Practice Acceptance
Acceptance is a bountiful resource for creating mental distancing from the COVID-19 crisis when you accept the realities of our human existence as a series of losses, transitions, and adjustments that challenge us to grow and adapt.
Skill: For this strategy I recommend borrowing the concept of “radical acceptance” from Dialectical Behavior Therapy(DBT). It is often helpful to make an easily recalled acceptance statement such as:
It is unhelpful to fight my new reality.
I am going to soften up around these new changes to my routine.
The present is all I can manage, not what has already happened.
I don’t like them but I can welcome in these changes in my life right now.
If you would like more personalized help please call Believe Behavioral Health today at 361-894-8734. We specialize in mental health services for children, adolescents, and adults. We provide targeted case-management & skills training, psychotherapy, and access to psychiatric services based on your clinical need.
Joseph Smullen, LCSW is a psychotherapist with Believe Behavioral Health.