Life during a pandemic is riddled with unknowns, fear and anxiety; however, your attitude and habits are your gateway to thriving, not just surviving
There is a destructive epidemic sweeping the planet that is harming millions of people, but it is not the Coronavirus known as COVID-19. Instead, it is the highly contagious illness that combines fear and anxiety. It goes by the name: Distress.
While governments and individuals are taking dramatic measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, the epidemic of Distress is ravaging our lives virtually unchecked. Distress is insidious, as it lurks in the shadows and influences our behaviors. And if it goes unaddressed, it can eventually harm us both physically and mentally, while hindering our ability to support and help others.
But there is good news! You can break this mindset and redirect your focus towards more positive and productive experiences by understanding and embracing these ideas and observations:
We see, read, hear or think about threat and danger every day. When you see a shocking news story or hear a co-worker talking about a tragedy, you likely lean-in to hear the details. This information catches your attention and leaves you with a strong desire to know more because there is something much deeper going on. When you hear concerning information, you may notice that you become more focused and alert.
The reason why all human beings are attracted to threat messages can be found in evolutionary science. According to Dr. Eva Ritvo, author of Bekindr: The Transformative Power of Kindness,
“Our brains are hard-wired to look for danger. Our prehistoric ancestors who survived were the ones who were best at spotting threats…
“These ancestors passed their genes on to us and now we look for danger everywhere we go. This primitive ‘Fight-or-Flight’ response is at the core of our sympathetic nervous system, the complex system that causes us to become hyper-focused when we sense danger.”
When you perceive a threat, your body releases three important hormones; adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The first two work in tandem to activate your physical fight-or-flight response. But cortisol, known as the “stress hormone”, dramatically increases this stress reaction and its effects can last far longer. As Dr. Ritvo says, “The state of high alert these hormones create in us can be a life-saver. The first person to see a dangerous lion and then quickly run away has the best chance to survive. In these extreme cases of real and present danger, high cortisol levels and the stress reaction it generates is very beneficial.”
Good Stress, Bad Stress, and The Ugly Cortisol
Understanding our fight-or-flight instincts and what to do when a stress reaction occurs is the key to helping you move towards a healthier mindset. Athlete, author and columnist Christopher Bergland explains: “The (Good) Eustress creates a seize-the-day, heightened state of arousal, which is invigorating and often linked with a tangible goal. Cortisol levels return to normal upon completion of the task. But Distress, or free-floating anxiety, doesn’t provide an outlet for the cortiortisol and causes the fight-or-flight mechanism to backfire,” (Psychology Today 2013 article Why the Stress Hormone is Public enemy No. 1) hurting us as opposed to helping us.
Research has shown that over time, elevated cortisol levels can interfere with learning and memory functions, depress the immune system, decrease bone density, increase weight gain, raise blood pressure, and increase cholesterol and heart disease. Beyond these specific physical problems, chronic stress and elevated levels of cortisol can also increase your risk for depression, ongoing mental illness, and lower overall life expectancy.
To reduce the harmful effects of stress, we need to resolve this sense of danger.
For Good Stress, this process is simple. But for Bad Stress, it can be more complicated. When we sense a present and imminent threat and we feel a stress reaction, we automatically do things to discharge this stress.
Here is an example: You notice a pipe in your kitchen has burst, gushing water onto the floor. Realizing your home is being flooded (danger), you experience a fight-or-flight (stress) response. As the cortisol and other hormones flow into your bloodstream, you feel a rush of motivation. Your focus increases, you become less distracted, your mind fixates on turning off the water and you complete the task. Congratulations! Disaster avoided! But there is more happening. Once your mission-in-the-kitchen is complete, your sympathetic nervous system senses the threat is eliminated. The cortisol flow decreases, a sense of relief washes over you, and you return to a more relaxed state. Congratulations again! You just discharged Good Stress!
You could successfully end the stress reaction because the burst pipe was physically there in front of you. The burst pipe was real, present, and imminent, so you could directly address the problem by stopping the gushing water. In this case, your good stress was beneficial, but the fight-or-flight response can also be triggered by simply perceiving a possible threat, whether it is present and imminent or not. This is where the destructive Distress response comes into play.
Perceived danger messages involve threats happening elsewhere, or threats that may happen to us at some point in the future but are not happening now.
Unlike the burst pipe, you cannot directly address these types of dangers because the perceived threat is not materially with you.
Have you seen stories of an earthquake or hurricane happening far away, and found yourself watching more-and-more coverage of the disaster? You may believe that you are interested in the story simply because you want to ‘stay informed’. While that may be partially true, your primitive fight-or-flight response plays a role in it as well. When your sympathetic nervous system sees news of a threat, it does not wait around to sort out if it is a present or a perceived danger. Its mission is to keep you alive, so it jumps into action.
You may believe that you can prevent a sympathetic response by mentally acknowledging that a threat is remote, but this does not stop the fight-or-flight reaction from engaging. Dr. Ritvo points out, “The fight-or-flight response and the stress it causes can be very real, along with the anxiousness, hyper-focus, and physical high-alert reactions it brings.” This is why the term “free-floating anxiety” is so aptly named; without any practical way to resolve these dangers, the anxious feelings caused by the stress just float around inside you without any clear path of resolution. This is where Distress is born.
Handling COVID-19 Stress
Here is a typical example of how you may be experiencing Distress during the COVID-19 emergency:
You tune in to the news coverage and hear concerning reports about the COVID-19 outbreak that trigger your fight-or-flight reaction. Although many people have been infected or exposed to the virus, you determine that no one you know personally or have been in contact with has been impacted. The news of the pandemic is alarming of course, but based upon the above factual information, there is no imminent real and present threat to you at this moment. But does that stop the primitive part of you from sounding the alarm bells of Distress? Likely not.
Although you might not yet be personally impacted by the virus, there are actions you should take to stay safe. This urgency to be proactive is the healthy Good Stress at work. This is what motivates you to follow the recommendations of your community and health leaders: practice safe hygiene, eating well, health practices and social distancing or sheltering in place. Besides safely supporting those in need, there is nothing else you can do to prevent or affect the outcome of those infected with COVID-19.
Unfortunately, this rational outlook is often overshadowed by the anxiety and pain of Distress floating within us. We worry about additional possible threats and keep scanning the horizon for more and more danger. And as our Distress grows, we lose track of supporting and caring for the one thing that we can manage in our world: ourselves.
Your first step to reducing chronic Distress is to consciously evaluate and then eliminate stress-triggering messages.
This is critical because your positive efforts will not take hold if you are overwhelmed by chronic anxiety. It’s also important to be mindful of who you surround yourself with during stressful times. Chronic exposure to people discussing threats and experiencing Distress can trigger your own stress, so choose carefully who you want around you to ensure your own comfort and support.
And if you define yourself as a “compassionate listener,” one word of caution. Although your empathy may compel you to listen to your friends’ concerns, this practice could backfire, especially if your friends keep repeating their stressful thoughts with no end in sight. If this happens, politely redirect the conversation to a more benign topic. This strategy may seem rude, but it is actually compassionate since you are helping them break their own fixation on Distress. If you see no way to change the threat-based conversation to something healthier, it’s best to remove yourself from the situation.
Impact of the 24-hour News Cycle
As the frightening COVID-19 headlines grip your attention, you may also find yourself viewing countless hours of news coverage. The more you view the negative reports, the more you are drawn to hearing about the crisis. You start to feel anxious and unsettled as you ask yourself, “Why do I keep watching this negative information? Why do I keep talking about this pandemic? Is there something wrong with me?” Don’t worry, your reaction is quite normal.
When you first hear of danger, you are drawn to the news because you want to better understand the threat.
The impulse to get initial information about the risk is your healthy, Good Stress response in action. But here is where the road splits between Good and Bad stress.
Dr. Rivto explains, “Millions of people tune in to watch the 24-hour news cycle when a crisis occurs. The threat messages in news stories can generate the cortisol effect, making us more hyper-vigilant so we impulsively watch more coverage. As viewership increases, news outlets produce more programming to satisfy the interest. The viewer’s anxiety and fixation grow as they watch additional programming, which generates more coverage, which generates more viewing, and more anxiety.… It is a self-feeding cycle.”
The Doctor’s comments are sobering. Your fight-or-flight response that is meant to save your life is unintentionally compelling you to consume news well-beyond the amount you need to understand a threat. And in doing so, you are exposing yourself to more unresolvable danger messages.
A vicious cycle of Distress increases when the threats we perceive are new and unknown. The typical flu season in the U.S. results in tens of thousands of deaths. But there is little concern and little coverage about this in the media because while the regular flu may be deadly, it is familiar. On the other hand, the unknowns surrounding the new COVID-19 virus heighten our collective sense of panic.
To break this panic cycle, you do not have to isolate yourself; you simply need to view the information more effectively.
To do this, simply ask yourself 3 questions that will give you clarity about the actual threat versus your perception of the threat:
- What and where is this danger?
- What is the likelihood that this danger is about to affect me and my loved ones?
- What can I do right now to protect me, my loved ones, and others from this danger?
If you find that you are becoming agitated or anxious by over-consuming news, follow these steps:
- Continue to view the reporting until the facts have been given.
- Stop watching once the factual information is replaced with panelists discussing their opinions.
- Return to viewing at a later time to see if any new and objective facts are being reported.
- If there are no new facts, and only random people discussing their feelings, stop viewing again.
- Repeat the process.
Ways to Discharge Distress While Staying Home
When you are ready to confront your Distress, remember that you have the power to choose how you cope with your reality. To help you discharge Distress while stuck at home, here are some practical suggestions:
Avoid Old Habits and Unrewarding Distractions — When life became overwhelming in the past, you may have chosen familiar go-to options to relieve your stress: shopping for things you didn’t need, booking multiple happy hours with girlfriends, tee-times at the golf club, or hanging out at the bar with your buddies. During this global pandemic, experts recommend you find new ways to focus your attention. Been meaning to take up needlework, puzzles, playing an instrument, or learning a new language? This is the perfect time!
Reconnect with Friends and Loved Ones — Social media is great, but why not pick up the telephone and call that sibling, uncle, or cousin that you haven’t talked to since the holidays? If your parents or grandparents are still with you, make that incredibly important call… and then make it again. The human connection is an essential way to break up our sense of isolation.
Make a New Food — For the 98% of us that don’t cook often or prepare the same things repeatedly, we are likely in a culinary rut. Being locked at home is a perfect time to try experimenting with cooking something completely new. Attempting an unfamiliar dish takes solid concentration which helps to derail Distress. Bon appétit!
Listen to Audiobooks and Podcasts — Audio-only programs are an engaging form of entertainment. And unlike books, audio programs also give you the freedom to move around, take a walk, or complete other tasks while you listen. Beyond hearing great stories and valuable tips of all kinds, the novelty of the programs can help to break your fixation on stress.
Just Move — The thought of exercising puts many of us off, so instead, adopt the “Just Move” outlook. Studies also show getting outside in nature has a positive impact on your mindset and your stress reduction. Any physical activity you do makes you feel stronger, more flexible, and more stable, but when you walk down a different street, try a new yoga stretch, or attempt a few dance steps from a new learn-to-salsa video, this new challenge distracts you even more from your Distress.
Laugh — Who would watch a goofy comedian’s video special or a sappy romantic comedy while the world is in crisis? A person that wants to break the cycle of bad stress, that’s who! Tune into a funny stand-up special on cable, an old Three Stooges episode, or a silly comedy TV show you’ve never seen before. You will feel better after the first laugh.
Listen to Music… A Better Way — While listening to music is shown to lower cortisol levels, changing up your listening habits adds an additional benefit. Checking out new artists or musical styles does more than engage your attention; the novelty the new music provides also increases the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine, into our bodies. You can break bad stress and increase your happiness while you Rock On!
Watch New-to-You Movies — You have watched the end of Casablanca, Star Wars or Shawshank Redemption over and over again because you love them, but watching the same old shows does little to eliminate Distress. Instead, try viewing something you’ve never seen before like a black-and-white ‘film noir’ detective thriller, a biography of an unknown figure, or checking out some of the Top 100 films identified by the American Film Institute.
Viktor E. Frankl said it best in his iconic book, Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
In our new reality with COVID-19, let’s all choose our outlooks and reactions wisely.
You may also enjoy reading Chronic Stress: The Silent Hormone (And Life) Hijacker by Dr. Stephanie Gray