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How to survive a pandemic without losing your mind

DEPRESSION
kitzcorner | Shutterstock
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The threat of this pandemic is real — and so is your stress level. Here’s how to get control of fear and anxiety and keep moving forward.

These are some stressful days we’re living through. Not only has this global pandemic put our nation in the most extensive quarantine we’ve seen since smallpox, but the shelter-in-place orders have also put millions of Americans out of work. Those of us fortunate enough to still be employed are working from home while also navigating the brave new world of distance-learning. There are no parties, no play dates, no sports, no activities — not even church is an option to help soothe our anxieties and bring us comfort and social interaction.

Instead, we’re locked in our houses while a steady stream of media coverage stokes our fears and anxieties. Our lives have been transformed so quickly and thoroughly that even necessary trips to the grocery store are strange and unsettling experiences, as we eye each other warily from behind masks and gloves and try to stay at least six sacred feet away from each other.

It’s no wonder that most of us are spending our days in a state of heightened stress and anxiety, often sleeping poorly at night only to wake up with stiff necks, clenched jaws, and short tempers. But this isn’t just an unpleasant side effect of our current reality — it’s a real problem. Stress is contagious — our families see it in our faces and hear it in our voices and their own cortisol levels rise in response to ours. All that cortisol running through our systems not only impacts our mental and emotional health, it weakens our immune systems.

Y’all, the last thing we need during a global pandemic are weakened immune systems. But how in the world do we de-stress during one of the most stressful times in living memory? I’m glad you asked. There’s actually a simple and effective strategy to bring our prefrontal cortex back online, shutting down the fight-or-flight response and all that cortisol it produces.

1
Make it real

First things first: one of the reasons anxiety is so hard to control is that it’s a physiological response. You literally can’t just “snap out of it” — your heart is pounding, your mouth is dry, your muscles are clenched, you might even have tremors in your hands or tunnel vision. These are all physical manifestations of a hard-wired physiological reflex to a perceived threat, the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This happens when your sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, preparing your body to fight, flee, or freeze. In order to keep your brain from getting in the way of survival, your sympathetic nervous system also shuts down your prefrontal cortex — you know, the part of your brain that controls rational thought, cause and effect, emotional regulation, behavioral inhibition … basically all the things you need to overcome stress and anxiety. Quite the conundrum, huh?

Don’t worry — there’s a way to get your prefrontal cortex back in the game. But first, you have to break out of the panic-spiral-thinking kicked up by your sympathetic nervous system. The best way to do this is to make it real — say it out loud, or even better, write it down. All of it. Grab a sheet of paper and write down every single fear, anxiety, and stressor racing around in your head — big or small, real or imagined — to get them out of your head and into the tangible world.

2
Freak out for a minute

Now that your fears are right there, staring you in the face, give yourself permission to freak out. Seriously, this is important — give yourself the gift of grace. Acknowledge that your fear and anxiety is real, and give yourself permission to sit with it. Set a timer for 5 minutes, then go ahead and feel all the emotions you’ve been trying to suppress. Cry, scream into a pillow, kick your punching bag — heck, grab a couple beach towels and have a towel tantrum. Do whatever it is you need to do to let those emotions out — but do it in a controlled environment with a time limit. Don’t keep shoving your feelings down until you explode over dinner, inadvertently taking your emotions out on your family. Adults have emotions every bit as strong as toddlers and teenagers, and adulting doesn’t mean you should ignore them. Adulting means controlling the expression of those emotions … so lock yourself in your closet and throw that tantrum, mama. It’s okay to freak out; just set limits.

3
Find the good

Now that your head is clear from the sympathetic tailspin, it’s time to pull your prefrontal cortex back online. Rip up that first paper, take a few deep breaths, then pull out a new sheet of paper. Write down three things you’re grateful for. Make them genuine, too — not things you think you should be grateful for, but things you actually are grateful for, right here, right now. Sometimes this list will include your children, but sometimes it might be something like Netflix and chocolate. That’s okay. Gratitude is the quickest and most effective way to restore and refresh your executive functioning skills, but it has to be genuine. Fake gratitude won’t get you anywhere — and worse, it might come with residual guilt that could kick-start a whole new sympathetic nervous system shame-spiral. So be honest about what you’re grateful for, whether it’s the sunshine through the window or the bag of Oreos you hid under your bed. Both sunshine and Oreos are good things to be grateful for!

4
Take control

By now, you should be feeling better — maybe a little red-eyed and worse for wear, but certainly more in control of your thoughts and feelings. That means your prefrontal cortex is back in action, so take advantage of it. Turn your paper over and make a new list of things you can control. You can’t control the economy, the stock market, or invisible droplets of COVID-19. But you can control what you do, when you do it, and how you do it.

Order your list in whatever way works for you—if doing the easiest, most attractive thing first gets your productivity going, go for it. If like me, doing the most dreaded, least rewarding task first builds momentum, make yourself do it. Don’t approach this like a to-do list, though — this isn’t a list of chores. This is proclamation of power. These are the things you can do, and do well. Take pride in what you’re capable of, then use that inspiration to get to work. Don’t forget to check things off when they’re done! Every check mark should be a little celebration. One, then another, then another …. keep adding, keep doing, and keep moving forward. This time will end eventually, and you’ll come through stronger, braver, and more resilient.

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