Video by Elfy Chiang
Post Written By Ginny Smith
If you are anything like me, the spread of a new virus around the world is affecting you mentally – you may be feeling stressed, nervous or anxious. These emotions are all linked to a more basic one – fear. Fear evolved to help protect us. When we see something that we are afraid of, signals are sent through our nervous system, and hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released. These work together to cause a cascade of changes in our bodies, which prepare us to run away from the threat, or stand and fight it. Our heart rate and breathing speed up to boost oxygen circulation, and our blood sugar level rises so that our muscles can work to their full potential. Any non-vital processes like digestion are shut down to conserve energy.
The problem is that these responses are only helpful if the threat is something immediate, and short-lived. And while they might protect you if you were confronted by a bear, they aren’t going to help when you are faced with a virus. In fact, long-term stress lowers the immune system, so it might even make things worse.
It’s not surprising so many of us feel like this though. Studies have shown that stress is most, well, stressful when we have no control over it. The emergence of a novel virus is, of course, a scary situation, and a pandemic on this scale is something none of us have faced before, so it is natural to be scared and anxious. It is important, however, to deal with this anxiety, and there are ways to do that.
First, while we might not have control over the virus itself, we can control our own behaviour. There are things we can do, like socially isolating ourselves and maintaining good hygiene, which will have an effect on spread of this virus and will also make us feel more in control. This should help reduce our stress levels.
We can also plan for any problems we might encounter. Making sure our cupboards have a few weeks worth of stock in them, for example, in case we fall ill and can’t get to the shops. You could even prepare and freeze some easy meals to have if you don’t feel up to cooking.
As well as the stress of the virus itself, working from home or not working at all and socially isolating can be sources of stress. It is important to stick to a routine when at home – make sure you still shower and get dressed in the morning, eat regular meals and work (if you are able to) your normal hours.
Set aside time to get some physical activity if you can – whether that is a run in the park, ensuring that you stay 6 feet away from others, of course, or a virtual dance class in your living room. Exercise releases feel-good chemicals in the brain and can be a great way to burn off some of the nervous energy stress can produce. If you can get outside, you might also get the benefits of being in nature – natural views are soothing and relaxing, and reduce the levels of stress chemicals in the blood. They might even boost your health. If you can’t get outside safely, listening to nature sounds, looking at pictures or videos, or buying yourself a houseplant may work too.
Plan time to do things you enjoy. Now might be a great chance to take up that new hobby you’ve been meaning to start – you could learn to play the guitar, bake elaborate cakes or reorganize your closet – whatever it is that makes you feel good. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of binging on Netflix when stuck inside, but making the effort to change things up every now and again will do wonders for your mental health.
Another thing we do have control over is the information we seek out. It is natural to want to stay up to date with what is happening – human brains hate uncertainty, so you might think that constantly reading the news will help reduce that uncertainty, and therefore your anxiety. Unfortunately, there is little certainty to be had, so constant scrolling is unlikely to help. Instead, set aside a time (or two) a day when you will get updates, and avoid the news the rest of the time. It may help to mute notifications on your phone, to reduce the temptation to check.
While you may not be able to socialize with friends in person, you can still talk to friends, or even have video-chat parties. This can be a great way to boost your mood – humans are social animals, and we thrive on interactions with other people. But if you are struggling with anxiety, it might be worth limiting the amount of corona-talk. Talking about your worries with other people can be helpful, but too much of it can also make things worse. Perhaps give yourselves 10 minutes at the start of the conversation to discuss the topic, then move on to other things.
Another great way to tackle anxiety is to channel it into helping others. Offering to pick up some extra bits at the shop for an elderly neighbor, donating money to a charity or offering to virtually tutor a friend’s son will all help them, but evidence suggests they will also make you feel better. In fact, charitable giving activates areas of the brain involved in happiness.
You could try meditation, guided relaxation exercises or journaling too – some people find that writing down three good things that have happened at the end of each day can help them find the positives in what might seem like a bleak time. Whatever you try, remember to be kind to yourself. Don’t expect yourself to suddenly be super-productive and focused, and don’t beat yourself up if you do end up scrolling through social media or finding it hard to concentrate on your work. These are strange times, and it will take us a while to adapt to them. We just need to keep doing what we can to make ourselves and each other feel better, and we will get through it, together.