March 30, 2020
For many of us, the past few weeks have been filled with fear, uncertainty, and anxiety…
Is it as bad as the news says, or is that just media hype?
We’re all going to get terribly sick! Nah, most people won’t even have symptoms.
This will blow over soon, right? Or will I be quarantined through summer vacation?!
Instead of focusing on the many things we can’t control right now, try to center your energy on the small things you can control.
Today, we’re featuring an essay written by Dr. Kristen Race. She’s got a PhD in psychology and specializes in science-based techniques to combat stress and anxiety.
Building Resilience in the World of COVID-19
By Dr. Kristen Race
For roughly a week in early March, I thought my husband was a lunatic…
He was obsessed with the coronavirus. And I laughed and I mocked. There was no way that the coronavirus was going to hit our tiny town in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Then around mid-March, something changed.
Within 24 hours, I went from full denial about the threat of a pandemic to a full-on panic attack. I toggled between convincing myself that the shortness of breath I experienced while going up the stairs must mean I have the virus… to compulsively hitting the refresh button on a live map of the current outbreaks… to obsessively cleaning the surface of every door handle, remote control, and phone in the house.
And while I tried to curtail my dread-shopping for astronaut food and an endless supply of chardonnay, my germaphobia had escalated to formidable levels.
Every touchable object I saw seemed as if it was teeming with infectious organisms, as I doused my entire family in Purell every time they walked in a room. I even found myself counting how long the faucet was running in the bathroom to see if my husband was washing his hands for the full 20 seconds!
Then, it all quickly shifted for me. As has happened before in my adult life, I used my neuroscience expertise to help implement a massive, impactful change in myself. I launched myself out of the downward mental spiral and into problem-solving mode, using neuroscience, mindfulness, and my favorite simple solutions to jump-start my sanity and my productivity.
Let’s start with some science…
What’s Happening in Your Brain
Over the last few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, your awake brain has likely been moving between two brain states… smart state and alarm state.
The smart state is responsible for decision-making, problem-solving, impulse control, and rational thinking. This is also where we process positive emotions… It allows us to think clearly and work productively. This state is active when we are calm and at ease, when we are getting a lot done and feel like we are “in the zone,” and when we stop to appreciate the good in our days.
The alarm state is triggered by stress and is driven by the amygdala, a walnut-shaped tissue that’s the “fear” center of your brain. When we are in the alarm state, we tend to be reactive, impulsive, irritable, and anxious. Additionally, when the alarm state is triggered, we have limited access to the calm, rational, positive, forward-thinking part of our brain.
Most of us have spent a heck of a lot of time in the alarm state lately. In our culture, even before this crisis hit, our stress response was working overtime just from living in a 24/7 world, typically filled with nonstop distractions, chaos, and too much to do. All of these pings and dings and a jam-packed Google calendar can easily put us in the alarm state way too often if we aren’t careful.
Now, with the nonstop apocalyptic COVID-19 news cycle and our kids arguing over who’s to blame for the slow-moving Wi-Fi, our alarm state seems perpetually activated… And if you are like most people, you’re going to bed with your head spinning about the coronavirus and waking up in the morning (or possibly at 3 a.m.), wondering, worrying, and catastrophizing about what new changes the day will bring.
This sounds dismal, I know, and it’s exactly what my brain was doing before I hit the reset button.
But here’s the good news – by engaging in simple mindfulness practices and routines, we can stay in smart state (instead of alarm), support our immune system, and build resilience even in the midst of all this chaos and uncertainty.
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Strengthening Your Smart State Through Simple Mindfulness Practices
Mindfulness practices are like physical training or conditioning for your brain. Similar to how bicep curls develop your upper arms, mindfulness exercises strengthen the neural pathways in the brain, allowing us to bring more mindful awareness into our day-to-day lives. They make the smart state stronger and more dominant in our lives – so it’s harder for that alarm response to take control. Here are a few profoundly powerful practices that I lean on often:
Paying attention to your breath is arguably the most powerful way to disarm the alarm state and bring your brain back online. The more consistently we practice mindful breathing, the more we directly strengthen the part of our brain that helps us focus, think clearly when we are upset, think positively, and bring emotional intelligence into our interactions with others.
A simple mindful breathing practice is called “box breathing.” Box breathing is a powerful technique to help clear your mind, relax your body, and improve your focus. People with high-stress jobs, such as Navy Seals and police officers, often use box breathing when their bodies are in the alarm state. With all the distractions facing us in the new norm of COVID-19, like working from home for instance, this simple technique enhances the smart state and improves our concentration immediately.
This is how you do it:
- Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose while counting to four.
- Hold your breath inside while counting to four.
- Exhale while counting to four.
- Then pause, holding your breath at the bottom of your exhalation while counting to four.
Repeat this process three to five times. I find it helpful to imagine drawing a box as I go through each step.
PBR – Pause, Breathe, Respond with Intention
When we are stressed, we only breathe with the top quarter of our lungs. This creates an imbalance in our nervous systems, which triggers that alarm state. It can happen quickly, and especially right now during the pandemic, it can happen often. For example, when my daughter comes into my home office interrupting a meeting to ask if I know where her phone charger is… or when I can’t resist and I hit the refresh button on the virus map… or when I check my retirement portfolio and see it down again.
Thankfully, the PBR breathing technique allows me to flip the switch instantaneously on how my body reacts to these instances, bringing my system back into balance.
This is how to practice PBR:
- When you notice you have been triggered, simply pause what you are doing,
- Take one or two slow, deep breaths, fully expanding your lungs,
- And then focus on a response that can lead to the most positive outcome.
This brief pause and intake of oxygen allows our brain to respond to difficult situations thoughtfully, rather than just reacting impulsively.
Create a Mindful Morning Ritual
You might be surprised to learn how you begin each day matters a lot to our brains…
Most people wake up to the alarm on their phone, diving into texts, notifications, headlines, and their inbox… and instantly, their alarm state is triggered. Especially now, when the news of limited ventilators and spreading virus cases are setting off such immediate triggers in our brains, avoiding this is key.
When you start your day with just a few minutes of an activity that stimulates your brain, you set the tone for a good day, both physiologically and emotionally. Beginning the day in the smart state creates resilience and enhances your ability to respond appropriately to everything that day can, and will, throw at you.
A few suggestions:
- Wake up to an alarm clock, not your phone.
- Meditate for five minutes before checking your phone.
- Set an intention for the day – I choose a single word, such as productivity,happiness, efficiency, or connection, that acts as my compass for the day.
- Prioritize your priorities. Make a list each morning of your top three priorities before you dive into your in-box, before your kids wake up, or before your dog starts to whine for breakfast.
Find the Good
Our brains are 3 to 5 times more sensitive to negative information than positive. This traces back to our hunting and gathering ancestors, who were in constant fight-or-flight survival mode.
Our brain’s natural tendency is to let negative events and emotions dominate our thoughts, thus activating that alarm state. However, when we can be intentional about finding the good, we strengthen the neural pathways in our brain related to positive emotions.
Here is a find-the-good technique you can try right now:
- Create a text group of two to three people who you would like to stay connected to during this time of social distancing.
- Set an alarm on your phone each evening to remind yourself to text three good things about your day to the group.
- Others in the group reply, sharing their three good things.
Research out of the Duke Patient Safety Center shows that when we practice finding the positive for just 14 days, we experience lower burnout in our jobs, lower depression, increased happiness, better work-life balance, and improved sleep. Longer term, this practice can work better than Prozac for boosting happiness and easing depression.
My emotions have been all over the map since I first heard the word “coronavirus.” At times, I feel like I have my act together… while other days, I’m quick to get triggered. So having a handful of techniques to lean on helps bring my brain back into balance when I need it most.
Kristen Race, PhD, is a heart-centered author, speaker, coach, and mentor to high-performing professionals from all walks of life and business. https://www.instagram.com/drkristenrace/
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And let us know what you’re reading at [email protected].
Managing Editor, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
March 30, 2020