How to Feel Better. Just a Little.
I’ve always been fascinated with neuroscience and how our brains work. Mine, especially. So last year, because I apparently can’t stop going back to school, I got a certificate in brain-based coaching from the Neuroleadership Institute. What I learned there about how our brains work got me thinking about how they are responding to the current situation with COVID-19. I thought it might be helpful to share some reasons why you may be feeling the way you are (aside from the obvious) and present just a few things you could do to help your brain calm down, and to help you and everyone around you feel a bit better while getting through this pandemic.
To get extra help and insight, I contacted Dr. Fran Appler, a licensed psychologist who has been in private practice since 1988. She specializes in anxiety disorders and in helping people learn how to manage anxiety symptoms. I asked her about what she is seeing right now and her advice for what we can do at a time like this.Here’s what we came up with:
First, your brain is built to freak out. Brains are designed to keep us alive, and they are always looking for a lion and listening fora rustle in the bushes, or any sign of impending danger. When there is an immediate danger, this is super helpful. But, when there is a potential danger that may or may not directly impact you at some point in the next few months, it can be debilitating. Your brain can put you in “I’m being chased by a lion” mode and leave you there. When I asked Dr. Apler about this, she said, “The most important thing is to realize that this is a natural danger response. It’s normal, it’s normal to feel afraid. Because we were made to feel it when we need to jump into action, it’s natural and normal. It’s not dangerous in and of itself.” Thanks a lot, brain.
So, your brain is designed to look for danger. Every time you look at the news, or Twitter or other social media, what do you find? Everyone is freaking out. The Washington Post and the New York Times are constantly putting out new articles about how horrible everything is. And our brains are eating it up and then churning out similar posts on social media. Everyone is worried and scared and it’s being amplified through the internet.
And, if you are like me, you are checking. Checking email, checking the news, checking Twitter. Dr. Appler explained that people (um, like me) who are binging on news are actually engaging in a behavior called “checking for reassurance”. Whether you want to be assured that you have the up-to-the-moment info, or you are waiting to hear that things are getting better, you just keep hearing that things are getting worse. But you just keep checking checking, checking. She says that, interestingly, “checking for reassurance raises anxiety. It does not make it go down.” Even when you check and hear something good (has that happened to anyone?) it still doesn’t reduce anxiety because you know that “things are often good and then they’re not.”
Relatedly, here’s one more insight from the neuroscience field. Your brain loves to look for danger and compulsively check the news. You know what it doesn’t love? Uncertainty. Your brain likes to know what’s going to happen. And I don’t have to tell you that there is NONE of that certainty lying around right now.
So now that you know that your brain is acting like a normal human brain, perhaps you can have more compassion for yourself about why you feel the way you do, and for others about why they are hoarding all the toilet paper. But what can you do about these feelings? I asked Dr. Appler, and here were her suggestions:
- For crying out loud stop checking the news and social media on your phone. And I don’t mean that in the way that we all talk about “screen time” and “being present”. I mean, really, the more you check your phone the worse you are going to feel. It’s a linear relationship. Watch the news twice a day so you know what’s going on, and then stop. You want to be informed, but constantly checking the news does nothing for you except make yourself crazy.
- Remember that as much as our brains like certainty, we never know what the future looks like. We live with uncertainty all the time. That’s life. You could get hit by a bus on any day, but we manage that uncertainty and continue to go about our lives every day. It’s part of life that we can’t know what’s going to happen. But we don’t normally worry all the time about what’s going to happen next, we just get on with it.
- What we do know for certain is that humans think creatively and we are great problem solvers. Solutions will come from this tendency of our brains, and things will be resolved. We just don’t know exactly what that will look like. Stop focusing on the people hoarding partying on the beach and think about all the ways in which different companies are shifting production to making masks, everyone is learning how to work remotely (including educating children remotely), and hospital and healthcare workers are finding new ways to make the supplies they have go farther. The fact that we are all (for the most part) staying at home because it’s the right thing to do for the greater good is pretty amazing for an individualistic society like ours.
- Live moment to moment. Is anything going right this moment? If not, what can we do to get back to business, or to living our lives, or to hanging out with our kids or pets.
- Take care of yourself: Get your heart rate up by exercising if you can. Then your heart will be beating fast for a good reason, instead of because you’ve been reading too much Facebook. Take a bath, read a book, FaceTime someone. Do whatever you can to stay connected and take care of your physical and mental health. There are many things in this realm that you can control. If you can meditate, do it. If you are terrible at it, try Headspace, a free app that does guided meditations and some are really short.
- Take care of others: According to Dr. Appler, “What we need to do is to think about how you can be helpful. Join the human race. Say, I understand that my brain is telling me that this would be helpful to me, but is it really helpful to society?” This can involve resisting the urge to panic-shop, or going to the playground. We want to end up feeling really good about catching those urges, understanding why they’re there, and avoiding them.
Everyone is stressed and strained right now, and your brain is designed to focus on what’s wrong, what’s bad, what’s uncertain. So don’t let your mind be unsupervised. Give it some direction. That takes extra work, but now is the time. Focus on what is going right here. I’ll give you three examples, you can come up with your own.
- I went to Trader Joe’s yesterday. They were only allowing 30 people in the store at a time, so there was a long line outside. All the people in line were appropriately spaced out and patiently waiting. If I had told you two months ago that would be possible, you would have told me I was crazy.
- I heard that blood donations were needed so I went to the Red Cross to sign up to donate and all the slots were filled at ALL the locations near me. How cool is that?
- There are some REALLY happy dogs right now. Everyone is working at home, dogs are getting lots of walks, and their lives really couldn’t be better right now. At least for those that have homes.
See if you can share something going right with someone next time you talk to them in-person or online, instead of all your conversations being about what’s wrong. I’m not suggesting you stick your head in the sand, but just try to balance it out. I promise it will make you feel better.
Ok, we will get back to our regular data nerd programming. But I hope these (evidence-based, I swear) tips will help you to stay, if nothing else, calmer than you might otherwise.