The last few weeks have been tumultuous. The coronavirus has injected uncertainty into markets, into all business transactions and into the way we live our lives. Many people, including ourselves and our employees, may be experiencing fear. Instead of being productive we may find ourselves compulsively watching the news, staring into space or having dire thoughts about the future. In addition, many people have lost their jobs or are working from home and may be feeling isolated. How can we understand our fear and learn to work with it?
The neuroscience of fear
Let’s start by looking at how our brains and our bodies react to threatening situations. At this moment, we are all likely concerned about the pandemic and its impact on the global economic crisis, as well as the health risks for loved ones and ourselves. Regardless of the specific concern, our brains go into high gear, sending transmitters to the body to mobilize in response to the perceived danger. Our bodies are flooded with adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol, all chemicals that raise our heart rates and blood pressure and prepare us to fight or take flight in response to the threat. This heightened response is certainly helpful in an emergency. But when it continues unabated for prolonged periods of time it can lead to stress. Over time, increased heart rate and higher blood pressure take their toll on our bodies and, if not addressed, stress can contribute to hypervigilance, heightened anxiety and a host of other mental and physical symptoms.
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How to calm an anxious brain
Of course, threats will always be with us in some form or another and we want to be able to meet them with the appropriate level of mobilization. However, in order to promote long-term health and resilience we can learn to manage our fear and stress. In addition to eating healthy foods and getting enough sleep and exercise, we can gradually begin to train our brains to respond creatively to situations rather than reacting with more stress. Here are some suggestions:
Gratitude: Neuroscientists have discovered that focusing on what we value and appreciate in our lives reduces our cortisol levels and reduces stress. Since our brain is simply trying to protect us, we can start by thanking it for working overtime on our behalf. We can also appreciate the many people in our lives who have provided us with love and support.
Connection: Friends and social interactions also have been found to play an important role in maintaining a healthy outlook on life. Although we are all practicing social distancing there are still many ways to connect. We can ask ourselves, “How can I get in touch with people who might be able to help me with emotional support as well as with good advice? Can I reach out and help someone else?” Many studies have shown that those who help others in a crisis experience reduced stress symptoms afterward.
Mindfulness: Another way to manage our personal stress is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally bringing one’s attention to the experience of the present moment, with a non-judgmental attitude. How does this help? When we shift our attention from fearful or obsessive thoughts to the actual experience of the body breathing, we begin to calm the nervous system. Specifically, when we bring our attention to the breath we can let thoughts dissipate with the outbreath. With each breath we are opening up our “closed loop” thinking and allowing new possibilities to emerge. We may find new and creative solutions where previously none seemed to exist. However, the purpose of mindfulness is primarily to give our brains and bodies an opportunity to relax the stress response and to come back to equilibrium and resilience. Our friends, family and employees will thank us!
Susan Skjei, Ph.D., is director of the Authentic Leadership Center at Naropa University and author of the online course Mindful at Work.